Sep 14, 2023 - Podcasts

The political gap between Protestant clergy and their congregations

White mainline Protestants are some of the country's largest religious groups. A new study shows their clergy tend to be more progressive than their churchgoers. We take a look at what that tells us about religion and political divisions in America today.

Guests: Axios' Russell Contreras, Emily Peck and Joann Muller.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Fonda Mwangi and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can send questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.


NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today. It's Thursday, September 14. I'm Niala Boodhoo. Today: Senator Mitt Romney underscores our aging political leadership. Plus, inflation eats away at American incomes. But first, today's One Big Thing: the political gap between some clergy and their congregations. White mainline Protestants are some of the country's largest religious groups…but a new study shows their clergy tend to be more progressive than their churchgoers. For example about half of the clergy identify with the Democratic party - but the majority of church members tend to identify as Republican or Independent. Axios' Russell Contreras explains what that tells us about religion and political divisions in America today…Russ, mainline Protestant churches are like Presbyterian or Lutheran or Episcopalian, we're not talking about Catholic or Evangelicals here. When we say these clergy are clearly more progressive…this isn't just about party affiliation is it? RUSSELL CONTRERAS: That's right. According to the survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, about 90% of the clergy that were in this survey said that we should have laws protecting gay and lesbian and transgender people. Churchgoers however, only 77% percent say the same thing. So you see deep divisions among... clergy and churchgoers, not necessarily the opposite, but there are divisions that are noticeable.

NIALA: Let's focus on abortion. What does support or opposition to Roe versus Wade look like?

RUSS: Around 73% of the clergy say they oppose overturning Roe v. Wade. For churchgoers, it's slightly lower, 67%. It looks like clergy are either slightly more progressive or way more progressive on certain issues that are really divisive in the national public right now, but they lean more toward, abortion rights than their churchgoers, even if it's slightly, it is telling though.

NIALA: What do we know in general about how political churchgoers want their clergy to be?

RUSS: Well, now around two thirds of American churches delivered overtly political sermons or messages in the run up to the 2020 election. However, according to another survey done by PRRI, said that, in general, most churchgoers don't think their churches are very political. They believe that their pastors walk a fine line between faith and religion. But in general, many churches say there's a good balance.

NIALA: Russ, this survey was dealing with one specific group, as we said, white mainline Protestant groups. Are there broader takeaways here when we think about religious affiliation and politics in America?

RUSS: The most telling thing I got from this survey is they asked clergy if they believed America was losing its identity. Only 37% of clergy said so, they said. But 64% of churchgoers from mainline Protestant churches believe that America is losing its identity.

If you think back about 60 years ago, when President Kennedy, or then candidate Kennedy, was trying to assure Protestants that he was a Catholic, that he wouldn't be ruled by the Pope. It seems sort of ridiculous now. But when he gave those speeches, he was talking to mainline Protestant church goers and church faith leaders.

Right now, the growing group that are the most influential group are Christian Evangelicals. Their numbers are growing in terms of the political spectrum, but even then, their numbers are declining. Church attendance is declining among Evangelicals. Overall, church attendance is going down across all religious groups. The fastest growing segment of the American public, though, are people who aren't going to any church who believe they're either spiritual, not religious, or not investing in any faith at all.

NIALA: Russell Contreras is Axios race and justice reporter. Thanks, Russ.

RUSS: Thank you. NIALA: Senator Mitt Romney announced Wednesday that he will not seek a second term representing Utah in the U.S. senate — marking the end of a decades-long political career. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, ran for president in 2008 and again in 2012 when he became the nominee and then lost to former President Obama. More recently, the 76-year-old has been one of the most high-profile Republican critics of President Trump. Here's Romney in a statement released yesterday. MITT ROMNEY: I've spent my last 25 years in public service of one kind or another. At the end of another term, I'd be in my mid eighties. Frankly, it's time for a new generation of leaders.

NIALA: As Axios' Andrew Solender and Erin Doherty write, that statement comes at an inflection point over the advanced age of some of Washington's most powerful leaders. You can find their piece with more on Romney's retirement in our show notes.

After the break: American incomes are falling. NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I'm Niala Boodhoo. Americans' incomes fell last year by about 2% after adjusting for inflation. That's according to new data from the Census Bureau. Axios' Emily Peck has more. EMILY PECK: The median income in the U.S. in 2022 was $74,580, but the year before, the number was $76,330. That drop helps explain something that has been puzzling economists and others in 2022. Why were people in the U.S. so bummed out about the economy when, according to many measures, like the low unemployment rate, things were going great? Now we have a good answer. Record high inflation in 2022 eroded our paychecks, and that really helps explain it. It also helps explain why the White House's efforts to sell its record on the economy to the American people, its Bidenomics agenda, has so far fallen flat. There was one bright spot in the data: Americans with no high school diploma saw their real incomes actually increase by 6.4%. And next year, the income picture is looking brighter. As inflation is eased, Americans are finally starting to see a real rise in wages and incomes. NIALA: That's Axios Markets Correspondent Emily Peck. And one other economic headline we've been following: U.S. inflation rose in August as gas prices surged. The Labor Department reported yesterday that the consumer price index rose 0.6% – the fastest pace in more than a year. The Federal Reserve is preparing to make a decision on interest rates next week. NIALA: The United Auto Workers contracts with GM, Ford, and Stellantis are set to expire at 11:59 tonight, and if there's no agreement by then, autoworkers are expected to walk off the job…potentially striking at all three companies at once, which would be a first. I asked Axios' Joann Muller to break this down for us by the numbers. JOANN MULLER: One economist we spoke to figures that a 10 day strike could cost as much as $5.6 billion and even trigger a Midwest recession. A lot of the conflict is tied to the ongoing shift to electric vehicles, with unionized auto workers fearing there will be fewer jobs making EVs. Tesla, which is non-union, already has a huge labor cost advantage over GM, Ford, and Stellantis. It produces cars for around 45 to 50 an hour, compared to labor costs of about $64 to $67 per hour for the Detroit 3. Automakers say they can't produce affordable EVs if that cost gap gets even wider. Tesla is already using that advantage to drive down the price of its cars, and it shows in their sales growth. In 2017, GM's sales volume was 85 times larger than Tesla's by 2022 that had shrunk to less than a fivefold advantage. Momentum is clearly on Tesla's side. All eyes are gonna be on Detroit tonight. NIALA: That's Axios' Joann Muller, coming to you from the Detroit Auto Show. And one last thing today before we go: We told you earlier this week that the FDA approved updated COVID-19 boosters. Now, the CDC is recommending the boosters to anyone 6 months and older. Pfizer and Moderna conducted trials on all the shots before gaining approval, and both the FDA and the CDC had expert panels make the recommendations. But meanwhile in Florida yesterday, that state's surgeon general discouraged COVID-19 boosters for people 65 and under. The DeSantis administration said it's the first state in the country to recommend against shots for those under 65 – contradicting the CDC's guidance. The new boosters are expected to start circulating nationwide by the end of the week. That's it for us today. I'm Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening, stay safe, and we'll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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