Omaha, Nebraska
Fall 1998
Volume 10, Number 1

Clergy in Politics: Choices and Consequences

Sue Crawford
Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies

A group of scholars from political science, sociology, and theology presented research on the political choices of clergy and the consequences of those choices at a conference held at Creighton University this past summer. The conference, Clergy in Politics: Choices and Consequences, was sponsored by the Nebraska Humanities Council and the Creighton University College of Arts and Sciences through the Center for the Study of Religion and Society with support from Clemson University. Sue Crawford from Creighton University and Laura Olson from Clemson University organized the conference.

The conference papers provided a useful overview of what we have learned about clergy involvement in politics and of the potential that new research approaches hold for the study of clergy and politics. All of the papers discussed the political choices that clergy make or the consequences of those choices. All of the papers also recognized that those choices and consequences are shaped, not only by theology and personal predispostions of clergy, but also by the religious, social, and political contexts in which clergy work.

Two well-known scholars of clergy in politics, Ted Jelen and James Guth, discussed what we have learned about clergy in politics and important research questions that remain. Jelen noted that current research indicates that four factors shape the political choices of clergy, especially the choice of how actively to participate in politics. The first is the extent to which the theology of a minister or rabbi provides clear prescriptions that support or encourage involvement in politics. In other words, to what extent does his or her theology connect being involved in politics with being faithful? The second is the extent to which clergy have clear moral authority.Jelen notes that clergy from evangelical traditions, which see the Bible as the inspired word of God, can claim strong moral authority to speak on political issues and can couch their political statements as clarifications of the inspired word of God. Clergy from mainline traditions, on the other hand, have more difficulty assuming moral authority because their traditions are much more likely to accept multiple interpretations of God's word. Consequently, the minister's political views are just one interpretation of God's will and other interpretations must also be seen as acceptable. The third variable is the skill level of clergy. Jelen observes that the occupation of clergy provides them with training and practice in skills vital to political action, but that clergy vary in their skill level, which will affect their ability and willingness to engage in politics.Finally, Jelen discusses religious particularism as also affecting the ability of clergy to engage in politics. Commitment to religious particularism makes it difficult to build the coalitions and make the compromises that sustained successful political involvement requires.

Guth focused on concerns about clergy in politics that deserve more research attention. He first noted that much more needs to be done to understand the political socialization of clergy, before, during, and after seminary. He argued that much of what we study is shaped by these earlier experiences and that more attention needs to be given to them. He also called for more careful attention to what we count as political activity, both for the sake of expanding our definitions to include activities relevant to clergy and for the sake of interpreting our results with a keen awareness that our definition of political activity shapes our results. Third, he argued that the political mobilization of clergy is a key component that deserves further study. Personal predispositions and theology may shape political attitudes, but something has to convert those predispositions into action.

Jelen and Guth both argued that although much remains to be done in order to understand clergy choices, the study of the consequences of those choices poses much greater challenges. Both encouraged scholars to direct attention to analysis of the effects of clergy choices.

Several papers focused on explaining clergy choices or consequences in the context of particular religious traditions. James Penning and Corwin Smidt discussed variables that influence the level of political activity of clergy from two denominations rooted in the "reformed" Calvinist tradition: the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) and the Reformed Church in America (RCA). Although these denominations share a Calvinist tradition, the CRC has a more conservative tradition while the RCA has embraced a more progressive one.Penning and Smidt find that interest in politics is a key variable explaining political involvement in both traditions.In the more conservative CRC denomination, clergy who agree with the statement that on most political issues there is one correct view are more likely to participate in politics. In the RCA, agreement with this statement is not a significant predictor of political action. Instead, agreement with the statement that clergy need to cooperate in politics is the only theological variable that is a significant predictor of higher levels of political activity for RCA clergy.

Sue Crawford, Melissa Deckman, and Christi Braun examined the factors that influence the political choices of women clergy from mainline Protestant and Jewish traditions.They used in-depth interview results to explore how being a woman minister in these religious traditions shapes political choices.Two themes emerged from the analysis. Gender affects the political issues that these women care about, their style of leadership, and their ability to have influence in the community. Being a woman also matters because of the status of women clergy. Women in these religious traditions operate in a professional setting in which they are not only a minority, but in which long-standing religious norms and teachings have been used to exclude them.Several women tie their concerns for political issues of discrimination to their experiences with exclusion in the profession. Some women also express reserve about involvement in politics because they fear that their positions are vulnerable. Others find the scarcity of women clergy can be a political asset because it makes them more likely to be recruited and to receive attention for their political statements.

Mary Sawyer provided a useful historical overview of how the choices of black clergy have been shaped over time both by the religious traditions of black Protestantism andby the political and economic status of black Americans through history. She explained that black clergy moved from a theocratic to a prophetic to an ecumenical strategy over time. The discussion of the evolution of these strategies demonstrated ways in which the political actions of black clergy reflect religious traditions as well as the political realities that occur outside the walls of the church.

Timothy Byrnes demonstrated how the choices of American and Polish bishops are shaped by the transnational Roman Catholic Church and by the party alignments and political contexts of the two different countries.The transnational Church restricts the political choices of Catholic bishops.The political capabilities of Catholic bishops in the United States have been further restrained in recent years by the fact that Catholic views on policies do not align well with the current party system. The Church's position on abortion and sympathy for school vouchers suggests an alliance with the Republican party, while the Church's position on other social and economic issues resonates more with the positions of the Democratic party. Consequently, American Catholic bishops cannot easily align with either party, making it difficult for them to have strong influence in either party.

Paul Djupe used public opinion data to examine the consequences of Cardinal O'Connor's political statements on his support among New York Catholics. Djupe found that O'Connor's statements do not appear to have seriously harmed his approval among New York Catholics, even though many disagree with his political positions.

Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz also focused on consequences of clergy choices, namely whether or not clergy cues make a difference in the voting behavior of citizens. He analyzed the voting patterns of white evangelical Protestants, white mainline Protestants, black Protestants, and British Anglicans. Kotler-Berkowitz provided evidence that clergy cues matter by demonstrating that those individuals from each religious tradition who attend church most often and,consequently, are most often able to hear clergy cues, vote in a way that shows the effects of clergy cues. When clergy cues are consistent with normal voting patterns for that religious group (white evangelical Protestants and black Protestants), greater access to clergy cues strengthens the probability that the individual will vote in a manner consistent with the group norm. When clergy cues run counter to normal voting patterns for that religious group (white mainline Protestants and British Anglicans), those who most often hear clergy cues are less likely to vote in a manner consistent with the group norm.This pattern holds even after accounting for party identification and other significant political variables, which suggests that clergy cues can have significant consequences.

Three of the papers examined the choices and consequences of clergy involvement in politics in an urban context. Laura Olson and Sue Crawford found that clergy who served congregations in low-income neighborhoods were more active in local politics than clergy who served congregations in more economically stable neighborhoods in Indianapolis, IN in 1993. They tested several hypotheses that might explain why clergy who work in low-income neighborhoods engage in higher levels of local political action than their colleagues. They found that some of the mobilization is explained by self-selection, by the fact that clergy who expect to be active outside of religious education and worship tend to be placed in low-income urban neighborhoods. They also detected evidence that neighborhood leadership vacuums and government recruitment mobilize higher rates of clergy activism in low-income neighborhoods.

Katie Day examined community development choices made by black clergy who serve in ten low-income urban neighborhoods in North Philadelphia, PA. She found that these clergy tend to choose one of two strategies to pursue community development goals. They either adopted a community organizing strategy in which they challenged existing structures, or they selected a traditional strategy in which they worked closely with the existing power structure in order to bring benefits to their neighborhoods. She noted that clergy who worked in the same neighborhood context made different choices and explored possible explanations for these choices. Black clergy most strongly rooted in black culture and institutions and most likely to have a power base are also most likely to choose the traditional strategy while those clergy whose home neighborhoods and schooling are more interracial and who serve in congregations with fewer resources are more likely to adopt the community organizing strategy. These congregational and personal factors appear to cause clergy who work in the same kinds of urban neighborhoods and who share very similar religious traditions to choose different political strategies.

James Cavendish examined the consequences of the attempts of Fr.Michael Pfleger, a Catholic priest who serves a congregation in South Side Chicago, to mobilize his congregation to participate in anti-drug marches. Using both quantitative data on church attendance and march participation as well as information from 104 in-depth interviews, Cavendish provided evidence that attending the 11:00 mass, "Fr.Mike's mass," increases participation in the anti-drug marches. Cavendish then explained why Fr.Mike was able to mobilize parishoners. He demonstrated that Fr.Mike's sermons provide a rationale for participation in the marches, enhance the sense that members could do something about the conditions in their neighborhood, redefine church membership to include participation in the marches, and construct a widely-shared religious meaning to the political activity, so that participating in the anti-drug marches was seen as sharing God's message, not just making a political statement. All of these components combine to create impressive consequences from Fr.Mike's mobilization efforts.

John Green, a political scientist from University of Akron and David Bodenhamer, a historian from Indiana University-Indianapolis, commented on each of the papers. The authors are currently revising their papers for inclusion in a volume to be entitled, Clergy in Politics: Choices and Consequences. Sue Crawford and Laura Olson will edit the volume.