Recently I wrote about the broad diversity among religious people, who include every imaginable theological, social and political worldview.
Yet in our present cultural climate, Christians, particularly, often are stereotyped as being cut from a single pattern — conservative, exclusionary, angry and, usually, Republican.
Hardly had my column appeared when the New York Times ran a story that illustrated my point.
The June 12 piece, written by Kevin Quealy, discussed an academic study by researchers Eitan Hersh, a political scientist at Yale, and Gabrielle Malina, a graduate student at Harvard, who matched 130,000 clergy to their voter registration records.
After reading the New York Times article, I looked up the original academic report online.
I’ve written before that I’m opposed to clergy getting involved in politics, much less telling parishioners how to vote.
However, Hersh and Malina state that political involvement by religious leaders has always been the norm in this country, and most major religious groups have participated.
Black and mainline Protestants were in the vanguard of the civil rights movement, for instance. White evangelicals led the campaign for Prohibition a century ago and currently form the core of the Religious Right.
Like it or not, religious leaders lead important constituencies that sometimes, at least, influence elections and legislation and social movements.
Hersh and Malina thought it would be interesting, then, to see how clergy of various denominations compare in their political leanings — or, more specifically, in their party registrations. Party affiliation tends to reflect how people react to hot-button issues, including abortion, gay marriage and climate change.
The researchers didn’t assume that pastors can dictate how their parishioners will vote.
However, clergy do tend to be employed by churches that hold similar views. You probably won’t find a Southern Baptist preacher leading a congregation of Bernie Sanders supporters, say. If you know how the clergy vote, that could suggest how most people in their pews vote, too.
What Hersh and Malina found, they say, wasn’t unexpected, but it was certainly dramatic.
“Denominations like Reform and Conservative Jews, black churches, and Unitarian-Universalists are nearly entirely Democratic (in leadership),” Hersh and Malina write. “Pastors associated with fundamentalist Baptist churches, independent Baptist Churches, the evangelical Church network, Brethren churches and others are nearly all Republican.”
In a few groups — Seventh Day Adventists, the Orthodox Church of America and Greek Orthodox — nearly half the pastors who are registered to vote haven’t declared a party.
Among denominations prominent in Kentucky’s religious culture, those whose clergy tend to be Democrats include the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Roman Catholic priests and United Methodist pastors are fairly evenly split among Democrats, Republicans and independents.
Largely Republican: Southern Baptists — Kentucky’s largest denomination and the nation’s largest Protestant group — and ministers of the Churches of Christ.
Another finding: Denominations with Democrats as ministers are more socially progressive among their own ranks. Depending on the denomination, 20 percent to 60 percent of their ministers are women, for instance.
Forty-five percent of Reform Jewish rabbis and 57 percent of Unitarian ministers are women, to cite two examples.
Compare that with the overall population of all pastors nationwide, of whom only 16 percent are women.
And churches in majority Republican denominations are led almost entirely by men.
Another finding: There is a correlation between the political affiliations of ministers and their parishioners, but lay people aren’t blindly following their clergy’s politics.
Clergy are significantly more one-sided in their political affiliations than their congregants. In one Lutheran denomination, for instance, 73 percent of the ministers are Democrats, but only 46 percent of the laity are.
That sort of variance is typical in Republican-led groups, too, where a startlingly large minority of Democrats occupy the pews.
That could suggest that even if a pastor beats a political tambourine on Sunday mornings, a great many parishioners will just ignore the clatter. (Or it could suggest that most ministers don’t declare their politics from their pulpits at all.)
A previous study by other scholars found that fewer than 20 percent of churchgoers chose their congregation for its political or social views.
“More than twice as many claim that the style of worship or the preferences of their spouse were important to their decision,” Hersh and Malina said.
Stated another way, 80 percent of worshipers don’t care how their clergy want them to vote or what their denomination believes about some political issue. They’ll follow their own spirits.
That might be discouraging news for ministers who hope to embark on political crusades. But it’s good news for curmudgeons like me who want to see church and state remain as separate as possible.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at email@example.com.