Sep 14, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Survey: White Protestant clergy more progressive than their congregations

Differences in views between white mainline Protestant congregants and clergy
Data: PRRI; Chart: Axios Visuals

White mainline Protestant clergy are more supportive of LGBTQ rights, abortion rights and racial justice than their congregations, according to a new survey that reflects how political divisions are roiling many American churches.

Why it matters: The survey by the Public Religion Research Institute is the latest indication of why disagreements over social issues have rippled through many congregations — often leading to "political church shopping" and increasingly polarized views of religion.

  • Many mainline Protestant churches — generally viewed as non-evangelical, traditional congregations that include Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Church of Christ and other affiliations — have been wrestling with partisan divisions in recent years.
  • The United Methodist Church, for example, has lost the equivalent of about 20% of its congregations in recent years, in part because some pastors and members have defied the church's ban on marrying or ordaining "self-avowed or practicing homosexuals."
  • That's led to an exodus of members to a more conservative Methodist denomination.

The big picture: Nearly a quarter of Americans say they used to follow a different religious tradition or denomination than the one they practice now — a percentage that keeps growing.

  • The jump in religion-switching comes as many Americans say they no longer believe in their initial religion's teachings — or, in many cases, disagree with a religion's stance against LGBTQ+ people.

Zoom in: The PRRI survey finds that mainline clergy are more supportive than their congregations of LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws, more likely to oppose the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and less likely to believe the U.S. is in danger of losing its culture and identity.

  • About half of mainline Protestant clergy members (49%) said they identify with the Democratic Party.
  • Data about white mainline Protestant churchgoers from PRRI's 2023 Health of Congregations Survey indicated that white mainline Protestant churchgoers tend to identify more as Republican (36%) or independent (35%).
  • Nearly two-thirds of white mainline Protestant churchgoers (64%) agree that "America is in danger of losing its culture and identity," compared with just 37% of their clergy.

Between the lines: Nine in 10 clergy among all mainline Protestant denominations (90%) favor laws protecting LGBTQ+ people against discrimination compared to 77% of mainline Protestant churchgoers.

  • Only 12% of mainline clergy agree with the statement, "God intended America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a society that could be an example to the rest of the world."
  • About 37% of white mainline congregants agree with that statement.
  • Nearly three-fourths of clergy (73%) say they oppose the U.S. Supreme Court's rejection of abortion rights under Roe v. Wade, the survey found.
  • Meanwhile, two-thirds of white mainline Protestant churchgoers (67%) said they opposed reversing Roe.

What they're saying: "Mainline Protestants nationally often are reluctant to want to hear about political messages," PRRI CEO Melissa Deckman tells Axios.

  • "What's notable about our clergy finding is there is certainly a responsibility that many mainline clergy feel about talking about politics, even when it provokes difficult conversations within their churches."
  • She said the findings show white mainline Protestants are still up for grabs when it comes to voting.

Yes, but: Just 13% of Christians who attend worship services at least a few times per year said their church is more divided by politics today than it was five years ago.

  • Most Christian churchgoers (56%) said their church is not more divided, while 30% said they were unsure.

But, but, but: Two-thirds of American churches delivered overtly political sermons or messages in the run-up to the 2020 election, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of online sermons.

Of note: This latest survey examines the opinions of mainline clergy who lead congregations from the seven largest mainline Protestant denominations, not Christian evangelicals or Roman Catholics.

Methodology: The Clergy and Congregations in a Time of Transformation survey was conducted between November 2022 and May 2023 by PRRI.

  • The poll is based on 3,066 of mainline clergy who lead congregations from each of the seven largest mainline Protestant denominations: The United Methodist Church (UM), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA), the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA), the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ (UCC), and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (DOC).
  • The margin of sampling error is ± 2.3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level, for results based on the entire sample.
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