Moralizing to the Choir? The Contingent Morality of American Christian Clergy

Image credit: Steven D. Martin/NCCUSA

By Paul A. Djupe and Amanda Friesen

Our article on which this post is based is available in final form from Social Science Quarterly and in pre-publication form here.

After the violence at the “Unite the Right” march of white supremacists and Nazi sympathizers in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday August 12, 2017, a few stories have cropped up about clergy asking difficult questions, expressing dismay and outrage, participating in the counter-protest, and expressing pride in Donald Trump’s widely decried moral equivalency response (Jerry Falwell Jr. on twitter).

The diversity of their responses raises questions about the moral worldviews that clergy hold and espouse. In their now well-known formulation, Jesse Graham and Jonathan Haidt argue that certain moral perspectives have emerged from religious traditions over time that reinforce community norms, which they label the “binding foundations.” Societies are held together by expressing deference to authority, by prioritizing loyalty to group members, and by promoting clear standards about what is pure and what constitutes a threat to health and values (seen in ritual cleansing, rules about food preparation and consumption, alcohol and caffeine restrictions, etc.). From this perspective, it would be surprising to learn that clergy were speaking up to challenge the status quo.

We suspected a quite different pattern, that clergy looked like the general public in their moral foundations, with universal agreement on the importance of individualizing (valuing equality and fairness) foundations, while varying in how much weight to place on binding. Moreover, since moral values are effectively interpersonal rules for solving social problems, we thought that certain social contexts would incentivize clergy to emphasize one set over another. In particular, when facing disagreement, it behooves clergy to teach parishioners about the value of fairness and everyone’s essential equality in order to preside over a divided congregation. Moreover, doing so could serve to bolster their position and preserve their autonomy – promoting individualizing helps to create space for their own disagreement to coexist.

Drawing on data from a survey of clergy in five Christian denominations [1] conducted in early 2014, we can examine the pattern of moral foundations (MF) clergy espouse under a variety of conditions. We used the 20-item MF battery available here. The results for the five included denominations in Figure 1 show how clergy emphasize the MF dimensions differently based on their partisanship. The pattern looks different from the public’s, but confirms at least two conclusions. First, Democrats (and liberals) value individualizing at higher rates than binding. Second, Republicans (and conservatives) value the dimensions about equally. Clearly, however, there is no universal emphasis among clergy on either dimension. And these results undermine the argument that religious organizations are binding specialists, which fits persistent findings that American clergy value and communicate inclusion over exclusion.

Figure 1 – The Importance Attached to the Five Core Moral Foundations by Clergy Partisanship

MF of clergy by PID.png

But we were interested in the situational incentives facing clergy that might lead them to value one set more. Facing diversity in opinion and interest is a valuable place to look since it is commonplace, and congregations can, at times, serve as organizations rich in democratic learning. We focused on conservative clergy (technically Republicans, but the pattern looks the same if we use religious conservatism) for a few reasons – their scores are not anchored to the high ends of the scale and they value both sets of foundations, which allows them to place emphasis on either when it is suitable. So, do Republican clergy emphasize individualizing when they face disagreement and anticipate facing a diverse audience?

Yes. As the Figure 2 shows, Republican clergy who face more disagreement from their congregations place much greater emphasis on individualizing foundations.[2] Democratic clergy already value norms that protect the individual, so the effect on their worldviews is nil – they would advocate an individualist view regardless of the context.

Figure 2 – Individualizing Climbs for Republican Clergy as they Disagree More with Their Congregations

Disagreement by PID on Individualizing.png

That means that the average level of individualizing foundations among Republican clergy reflects lower levels of disagreement faced, which is what ‘fizzy pop’ Figure 3 shows. It does not show that conservative clergy do not face disagreement, but they do face, on average, 15 percent less disagreement than others.[3]

Figure 3 – Republican Clergy Face Less Disagreement than Other Partisans (15% less)

fizzy pop of congregational disagreement by pid.png

From a democratic perspective, one of the most valuable experiences an individual can have is meaningful exposure to disagreement, especially within a trusting group. In this way, people learn to tolerate or even embrace difference and that groups/states are filled with diverse views and cannot long survive the unwillingness to extend equal rights to all. The individualizing foundations are at the core of American rights culture and are widely embraced by Americans and even by many clergy. But they are not universally celebrated or implemented in public policy, which clearly depends, at least to an extent, on the social context and relationships that people face. This, then, is why social scientists worry about the continuing Big Sort along partisan lines that we see in communities, mate selection, and churches. Growing homogeneity of social ties undermines a commitment to the rights of individuals and slackens the necessary democratic lessons of everyday life.

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University Political Science, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of (see his list of posts here). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.

Amanda Friesen, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis Political Science, is a project director for the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture. More information about her research is located here or follow her on Twitter.



1. The included religious bodies were the United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America, Southern Baptist Convention, and the Greek Orthodox Church. While not a representative sample of American clergy, the sample does have considerable diversity across key measures. See the linked article for a longer discussion.

2. The measure of disagreement with the congregation involved averaging across five items, each coded 3=mine much more liberal/conservative, 2=mine somewhat more liberal/conservative, 1=mine about the same. Each asked, “How would you compare your own views with congregation members’ views on the following items? On social issues like abortion, In terms of partisanship, On theological issues, On issues regarding immigration, On government aid to the poor.”

3. The level of congregational disagreement clergy face is, perhaps surprisingly, not distinguishable among the included denominations. The average is slightly less among those in the SBC, but again, not statistically distinguishable. However, there are more Republicans in the SBC (by more than a factor of 2) compared to the others.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s