Survey shows diversity in political opinion among mainline Protestant clergy

Episcopal clergy take lead in staking out progressive positions
March 6, 2009

A survey by Public Religion Research released March 6 shows that mainline Protestant clergy are much more likely to identify themselves as liberal and Democrat than conservative or Republican.

The "Clergy Voices" survey showed that clergy of The Episcopal Church, which it included in its definition of mainline Protestants, and the United Church of Christ (UCC)--66 percent and 74 percent, respectively--were the most likely to call themselves liberal. Overall, 48 percent of the clergy surveyed chose that label.

Robert P. Jones, the research group's founder and president, said during a March 6 telephone briefing that the survey showed that Episcopal Church and UCC clergy were "really staking out more progressive views" than the rest of the clergy who responded.

The two denominations also led the list of those clergy who said they believe the U.S. government should do more to solve social problems (UCC clergy were at 90 percent, Episcopal clergy 87 percent).

"Clergy play an important role in shaping congregant views" and in setting public-policy agendas, Jones said during the briefing. The survey also showed that the liberal and Democratic leanings of mainline Protestant clergy are now more likely to be shared by the laity than was the case in years previous.

"Mainline Protestants, who make up 18 percent of all Americans and nearly a quarter of all voters, have been trending Democratic in recent years, but remain fairly evenly divided in their political behavior," the research group said in a news release about the survey. Jones said during the briefing that clergy have had predominantly Democrat leanings since at least 1988.

When asked if the political views of mainline Protestant laity and clergy may be more similar now because conservatives have left those denominations, Jones said "there's still an incredible amount of diversity among this group" in terms of political and theological opinion.

The researchers, Jones told reporters during the briefing, saw a correlation between clergy's stance on biblical inerrancy and their political and ideological leanings. Episcopal clergy were the group least likely to agree with a statement that "the Bible is the inerrant word of God, both in matters of faith and in historic, geographical, and other secular matters." Eighty-nine percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, compared with 68 percent overall. At the other end of the spectrum, 58 percent of American Baptist ministers believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God.

On Episcopal stances about specific issues, the survey showed that:

* 73 percent of Episcopal clergy said that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to 51 percent of all clergy surveyed.

* 49 percent approved of same-gender marriage and another 38 percent supported allowing gay couples to enter into civil unions, compared with 33 percent and 32 percent, respectively, of all clergy surveyed.

* 77 percent supported the ability of otherwise-qualified lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people to adopt children, compared with 55 percent overall; 79 percent favored extending non-discrimination in employment rights to LGBT people, compared with 66 percent overall; and 79 percent support hate-crime law protection for LGBT, compared with 67 percent overall.

* 81 percent support an end to capital punishment, compared to 66 percent overall.

Public Religion Research said that the survey is the largest done with mainline Protestant clergy in the last seven years. "Mainline Protestant" was defined as those denominations that belong to the National Council of Churches and that have been historically and sociologically called "mainline" in terms of their often-liberal theological views. One list of mainline denominations is available here.

The survey was conducted by mail between March 3, 2007 and September 15, 2007 using a random sample of 1,000 clergy in senior leadership positions in the seven largest Protestant denominations (United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the American Baptist Churches USA, the Presbyterian Church-USA, and the Disciples of Christ, along with the Episcopal Church and the UCC). The clergy names came from the denominations. There were 2,658 respondents to the 250-question survey, representing a 44% response rate. The margin of error was + or – 2 percent.

The survey data was weighted to reflect the relative size of each denomination in the general population. Nearly two-thirds of mainline Protestants are affiliated with United Methodist congregations, so their clergy were weighted more heavily than
Episcopal Church, UCC, and Disciples clergy, who were among the smallest denominations in the study, making up 6%, 4%, and 2% of the mainline Protestant population respectively, according to the survey.

Respondents were 80 percent male, 93 percent white, and highly educated (94 percent had seminary or other post-graduate training) with a median age of 56, Jones said. They were offered a number of identity labels and could choose more than one label to describe themselves. Among Episcopal clergy, 61 percent called themselves "mainline," 25 percent chose "evangelical" and 76 percent chose "liberal" or "progressive," while 16 percent chose "conservative" and 10 percent called themselves "born-again." Overall, 60 percent of respondents called themselves "mainline," 43 percent called themselves "evangelical," 55 percent chose a "liberal" or "progressive" label, 26 percent said they were "conservative" and 23 percent called themselves "born-again."