The ABCUSA – A Denomination Fractured Along Political Lines

Featured Image Credit: ABC-USA

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

Along with teaching political science at Eastern Illinois University, I am also a pastor in the American Baptist Church (ABCUSA). I have served three churches over the last fourteen years and have been leading my current congregation for just over a decade. I’ve always wanted to do a survey on ABC clergy to see what we are exactly. According to the “reltrad” classification scheme, the American Baptist Church is classified as mainline, which means that it’s in the same grouping as the Episcopalians and the United Church of Christ. On its face, that makes sense. The ABC and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) broke apart in the run up to the Civil War when pastors in the South would not denounce slavery, while many northern ministers were fighting for abolitionist causes. This loose collection of progressive ministers coalesced under the moniker of the Northern Baptist Convention in 1907, which was eventually renamed the American Baptist Churches of the USA in 1972.

I, and fellow contributor Paul Djupe, put together a survey that we sent out to approximately 1500 ABC churches in the weeks before the 2016 presidential election. We asked a variety of religious and political questions patterned on the model established by the Cooperative Clergy Study. I recently gave a presentation to the National Leadership Council of the ABC regarding the results and wanted to share a little bit of that.

The big question that I wanted to have the audience ponder was: is the ABC a mainline or an evangelical denomination? The answers here are mixed. Using the typical battery of religious conservatism, we found that the ABC stands in the middle, to the right of the Presbyterian Church, USA and the United Methodist Church but less conservative than their SBC counterparts. However, when I broke the ABC clergy sample down into those who indicated a vote for Clinton and those who said they would cast their vote for Trump, a staggering difference emerges. Republican ABC clergy are not statistically distinct from Southern Baptist clergy and ABC clergy who would vote for Clinton look very similar to clergy in other mainline churches like the UMC and the PCUSA. It’s almost like the ABC is two traditions in one denomination.

Figure 1 – ABC Clergy Who Voted for Trump (Red Dots) look like Evangelicals, ABC Clinton Voters (Blue) look Mainline

graph1

We also asked ABC clergy to indicate how involved they wanted their denomination to be on social and political issues, both in terms of informal discussions inside the church and lobbying efforts toward state and local government. The series of three questions were summed and scaled from 0 (indicating much less involved) to 1 (indicating much greater involvement). The mean for the entire sample was a good sign for the ABC at .51 indicating that the average response was contentment with the current level of involvement. This, however, masked a serious divergence in the desires of conservative and liberal ABC clergy.

When the two groups of ABC clergy are plotted against other clergy that have been asked the same questions, the Trump supporting American Baptists wanted a less active denomination than any other group of pastors. On the other hand, the liberal ABC clergy desired to see a much more active denominational office. These liberal clergy believe that the ABC is a liberal denomination and want that to become more visible. The Trump clergy want the ABC to maintain the status quo.

graph2

 

We also asked the ABC clergy to tell us how they think their congregants were going to vote in the 2016 election. The average vote share for Clinton was 52.2% and Trump at 43%. This comports well with the results of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study data from 2016. However, as before, splitting the sample into Trump voting clergy and Clinton voting clergy reveals an expected pattern — Trump voting clergy believe that 67% of their congregations are going to vote in the same way. The Clinton voting clergy perceive that 68% of their parishioners are also going to pull the lever for the Democrat. Republican pastors lead Republican churches and vice versa. That could be driving the polarization that is rapidly advancing in our voting booths and our church pews.

It’s important to not exaggerate the logic of this finding. While, there is some evidence of politically skewed congregations, there are few that are dramatically polarized. For example, just 15% of congregations were two thirds in favor of Trump, and 20% were two thirds for Hillary Clinton. That leaves 65% of ABC congregations that contain a healthy mix of political diversity. From a leadership standpoint, most clergy pastor congregations with very large sets of partisan minorities. It is this realization that drives clergy to present balanced sets of arguments about public policy issues, promote participation and citizenship over campaign mobilization, and to think of representation in terms of the people’s interests rather than a particular party’s interests.

graph3

The ABC leadership is well aware of the nature of the divisions in their denomination. When a story broke a few months ago that an ABC church in Washington, D.C. was hiring a married lesbian couple to co-pastor their church, a portion of the denomination was pleased, another set of churches threatened to disaffiliate. The ABC lives between the two poles of American politics. It risks being pulled apart if it can’t somehow navigate how to stay together. From a social science standpoint, one has to wonder if using classification schemes like “reltrad” have managed to paper over the tremendous amount of diversity that exists in traditionally mainline denominations. For now, I am hesitant to say that the ABC should stay classified as a mainline church, but I am also reluctant to put them in the evangelical camp. Researchers may have to live in the same tension as ABC leadership.

To view the entire presentation that I delivered, feel free to download it here.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website.

 

 

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