Political Theology on the Right and Left
by Rhys H. Williams
Rhys H. Williams, associate professor of sociology at Southern
Illinois University in Carbondale, is coauthor (with N.J. Demerath III) of A
Bridging of Faiths: Religion and Politics in a New England City. He is editor
of Cultural Wars in American Politics: Critical Reviews of a Popular Myth
(Aldine de Gruyter, 1997), from which this article is adapted. This article appeared in The Christian Century,
July 29-August 5, 1998, pp. 722-724. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation;
used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found
This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
BOOK REVIEW: The Bully Pulpit: The Politics of Protestant Clergy,
by James L. Guth, John C. Green, Corwin E. Smidt, Lyman A. Kellstedt
and Margaret M. Poloma. University Press of Kansas, 221 pp., $35.00; paperback,
From the colonial era, through the debates over slavery, immigration and temperance,
to current social movements such as those for civil rights or against legalized
abortion, Protestant clergy have played pivotal organizational and ideological
roles. If, as Alexis de Tocqueville said, America's churches are its "first political
institutions," then Protestant clergy are a political "elite" worth studying.
Of course, the political involvement of clergy has waxed and waned. In the late
l960s and early '70s clergy led many civil rights and antiwar efforts. Dubbed
the New Breed by theologian Harvey Cox, liberal pastors were on the front lines
of national controversies and seemed poised either to take over their denominations,
split their churches over political issues, or both. Two excellent books emerged
from that period, Jeffrey Hadden's The Gathering Storm in the
Churches (1969) and Harold Quinley's The Prophetic Clergy
(1974). Both charted the actions of young clergy who were highly educated (usually
in the humanities and social sciences) and committed to living out their faith
in direct action, even if that required civil disobedience. That these pastors
were well ahead of their parishioners on many issues was well documented; that
gap was thought to have led to lay dissatisfaction with mainline churches, causing
membership declines in the '70s and '80s--and concomitantly leading to the growth
of evangelical denominations.
Subsequent social-scientific studies of membership trends have revealed that interpretation
to be too hasty. Statistical analyses show that basic demographic facts such as
birthrates and the retention of young people in the church better explain changes
in membership. Nonetheless, the conviction that liberal activism alienated laity
became conventional wisdom in many mainline denominations, and the New Breed were
either reined in or ushered out.The parallel story of the late '70s and '80s was
the rising political activism of evangelical clergy. Based in seminary connections
and Bible-study networks and supported by televangelist operations, a new breed
of evangelical pastors shed political quiescence in favor of participation in
antiabortion, antipornography and anti-gay-rights movements, and several well-known
media figures such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson became visible in the Republican
Party. It became liberals' turn to worry about clergy "meddling" in politics and
to trumpet the "separation of church and state." And--though this was little remarked
upon--it was evangelical churchgoers who sometimes questioned the public activism
of their clergy.
The so-called New Christian Right has generated a considerable amount of academic
attention. Two recent examples are Clyde Wilcox's God's Warriors
(1992) and Ted Jelen's The Political World of the Clergy (1993).
Like their liberal counterparts of a decade or so earlier, evangelical activists
tended to be more educated than nonactivist evangelical clergy (seminary vs. Bible-college
training). They often represented newly middle-class constituents in growing suburban
centers. Whereas the liberal New Breed represented "organizational elites," with
jobs in denominational bureaucracies, in seminaries or on college campuses, many
conservative activist clergy are part of the "technological elites," using their
televangelist operations for both fund raising and spreading their message.
James L. Guth, John C. Green, Corwin E. Smidt and Lyman A. Kellstedt have an ongoing
collective research project on the relationships between contemporary American
religion and politics. Much of their recent work has focused on the political
mobilization of conservative Protestants, but their more general point is that
religion powerfully influences political attitudes and behaviors.
The newest offering from this productive group, here joined by Margaret M. Poloma,
is a thorough examination of the religious foundations of the political views
of Protestant clergy. Guth and his colleagues explicitly compare Protestant clergy
(predominantly white) across the theological and ideological spectrum. The authors
draw upon a series of surveys administered to clergy from eight different denominations.
The data focus on religious beliefs and commitments, and relate them to ideology,
voting, partisan identification and attitudes on specific issues.
A clear division of clergy into two different groups emerges, based on theological
orientation, political attitudes and position on the issues. The researchers'
findings support the claim that there is a "two party" system in American Protestantism,
and that this division promotes a "culture war" in American politics generally.
The authors carefully develop a model for how religious beliefs and ideas affect
clergy politics. In their scheme, a clergyperson's "theology" determines all other
attitudes. While the authors recognize nuances and subtleties in theological positions,
they divide Protestant clergy into two basic camps, the "orthodox" and the "modernists."
The two camps approach scripture differently, the former emphasizing inerrancy
and literal meaning, the latter preferring historical and contextual criticism
that incorporates modern science and culture into its understandings. This divide
recalls the fundamentalist-modernist debate of the early 20th century that split
many Protestant denominations. The authors find elements of that dispute still
Theology is the building block for what the authors call "social theology." Again,
they discern two basic world-views, "individualist" and "communitarian." Social
theology is about the role of the church in the world. It asks how the world should
be encountered and what is the main "problem" to be solved. Individualist social
theology views the church's primary mission as helping align individuals with
the divine will; communitarian social theology concerns itself with building community
in this life and reforming worldly institutions.
Social theology in turn forms the basis for clergy's "political agenda," which
is divided between those who focus on "moral reform" and those who focus on "social
justice." The former involves what is traditionally thought of as personal moral
issues, primarily sexual and other personal "vices." The social-justice orientation
is a contemporary version of the Social Gospel, meaning concern about economic,
racial, gender and international inequalities. These are articulated as explicit
issues for intervention on the part of both individual believers and the corporate
The authors next examine political "ideology" and "partnership," and again find
a bipolar divide. Ideological liberals and Democrats tend to align against ideological
conservatives and Republicans. Even in this day of weakened political parties,
partisan identification remains a strong predictor of attitudes and self-understandings;
we tend to root for "ourside" even if we are a bit cynical about both sides in
the first place. In sum, those who hold "orthodox" theologies are likely to endorse
"individualist" social theologies, support "moral reform" political agendas, be
ideologically conservative and vote Republican. In contrast, those with "modernist"
theologies more strongly support "communitarian" social theologies and "social
justice" political agendas, are ideologically liberal, and vote and identify themselves
as Democrats. The authors emphasize that this logical coherence is an aspect of
elites--people whose stock-in-trade is ideas and values and to whom this type
of consistency is an important part of identity. Such consistency is not often
found in surveys of mass publics.
A number of other interesting findings deserve mention. First is the closing gap
between modernist and orthodox clergy in their orientation to political involvement.
The orthodox are almost as likely as modernists to consider "social justice" issues
very important--but "moral reform" issues are so much more important to them than
to modernists that their interests and activism are drawn to that agenda. Both
groups generally approve of putting their beliefs into practice, although the
modernists are much more likely than the orthodox to approve of "direct action,"
which may involve civil disobedience.
Education, particularly at liberal arts colleges and seminaries, is important
in shaping outlooks; indeed, even among orthodox clergy those with seminary educations
are more like modernists than are orthodox clergy without it. Education thus has
a potentially ironic effect on clergy; the education and experiences that provide
the interests and motivations to get involved politically are also corrosive of
The book is less concerned with actions than with attitudes, but here too the
authors find distinctions between modernists and the orthodox. Both groups may
have similar feelings about the appropriateness of activism, but they vary on
what actions they tend to take. Each group has its own preferred style. The orthodox
are more likely to preach or make pronouncements, while modernists are more likely
to form in-church organizations or engage in direct action.
In sum, the authors argue that among Protestant clergy there are two basic constellations
of values, beliefs and attitudes, running from religious theology to political
participation. This conclusion supports what Martin Marty almost three decades
ago called the "two party" system in American Protestantism. Marty distinguished
between a "public" Protestantism dedicated to reforming society and establishing
the "kingdom of God" in this world (the stance of the mainline denominations through
most of this century) and a "private" Protestantism that eschewed worldly involvement
in favor of the care and salvation of individuals. This distinction still marks
the politics of Protestant clergy. However, there is no distinct gap between evangelical
and mainline clergy in terms of their willingness to engage the public sphere.
The issues that galvanize the two groups are different, as are their proposed
solutions to public problems, but significant numbers of both groups are equally
involved with both public and private concerns.
The authors claim that rival social theologies are part of a wider-ranging division
between theological and political worldviews. The "culture war" idea, popularized
by sociologist James Davison Hunter, maintains that this division runs down the
middle of all American politics. Differences such as economic class, geographic
region, race and gender are thought to be receding as the enmity between the "orthodox"
and the "progressive" becomes increasingly important.
The Bully Pulpit clearly uncovers a worldview gap. Of course, the
population being studied here is in many ways homogenous. Since all are Protestant
clergy, there is no sacred-secular tension. And the sample is overwhelmingly white
and middle class. Consequently, the book is not representative of our nation or
of the parts of our population growing most quickly: Latino/as, Asians, Catholics
or Muslims. Thus, while the Protestant clergy are divided, theirs is a relatively
limited culture war.
How much do the politics of Protestant clergy matter? Though white Protestants
remain a substantial part of the nation, how much do their clergy guide the attitudes
and actions of their flocks? Guth and colleagues note that even when clergy offer
guidance or undertake action, they try to preserve congregational harmony. Clergy
do a delicate balancing act among their own personal commitments, the perceived
and vocalized wishes of their congregations, and their professional networks of
fellow clergy. Under what conditions those contending pressures push clergy into
activism is not an issue the authors can develop.
The authors do ask which issues are "addressed" by clergy and how often they address
them; they also assess what leads clergy into overt action. However, we get little
information about the context in which the "addressing" takes place. Clergy generally
do not like to give explicitly political messages during sermons, and their congregations
do not like to hear them. Thus it is difficult to know which messages get through
to the laity and what the laity do when they receive them. A consistent finding
by those who study television evangelism is that many viewers watch these programs
for the "religion," but have their own internal "V-chip" that screens out political
messages. So while clergy consistently see a part of their political role as "cue-giving,"
we are still unsure what effects that has.
When considering activism, the authors carefully include both conventional, institutionalized
behaviors such as letter-writing and nonconventional social movement-style actions
such as pickets and boycotts. They chart who gets involved and in what kinds of
actions; not surprisingly, conventional actions are more common and more approved.
This finding represents another irony: clergy have relatively few resources to
offer conventional politics. They cannot readily deliver blocs of votes, money
or media time--the coin of the current realm. On the other hand, clergy have many
valuable resources to offer social movements, such as meeting space, organizational
skills, social networks and public legitimacy. Thus clergy may well be most active
in ways that have less immediate impact. And social movements, which usually arise
from less-represented constituencies, need the resources that clergy can provide.
But clergy are often constrained by both their predilections and their situations
from being more active.
The Bully Pulpit provides an imaginative and persuasive account of
white Protestant clergy and of how theological and political orientations are
intertwined. Indeed, we probably don't need any more survey analysis of these
issues for a while. Surveys can provide a lot of information, especially about
voting habits and partisan identification. But less conventional kinds of politics
are more difficult to capture, and the impact of political commitments is more
elusive still. The politics of the next century may leave the Protestant orthodox-modernist
conflict well behind. Those of us interested in these issues may need to broaden
our radar scope and adjust our antennae to hear new voices expressing new issues
in unconventional ways.
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