Who supports women’s ordination in America? It’s not who you might think.

Ryan Burge recently published a valuable and insightful analysis of the 2006 and 2011 Faith Matters Survey, examining levels of support for female clergy in the United States as well as factors correlated with that support. He found that support is widespread: a full 78% of Americans agreed either somewhat or strongly that “women should be allowed to be priests or clergy in my house of worship.” His analysis also revealed that support was strong even among members of organizations that currently have male-only clergy policies in place: 69% of Catholics and 65% of Southern Baptists. Interestingly, patterns in the survey revealed that the strongest predictors of support for women’s ordination were not gender or age, but rather religiosity and partisanship: support was strongest among Democrats as well as those who attend religious services less frequently.

cover_r3_shepreachedtheword_knollbolin-smallIn our new book, She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America (Oxford University Press), we take a deep dive into both quantitative survey data as well qualitative interviews to examine this question in more detail. Throughout 2015 and 2016, we asked American worshipers from around the country (specifically, anyone who said that they attend religious services at least “seldom”), both Christians and non-Christians alike, whether or not they preferred that “women be permitted to serve as the principal religious leader” in the congregation they attend most often.

In many ways our results mirrored those found by the Faith Matters Survey. We also found high stated support for women’s ordination in American congregations, with 72% of American worshipers stating that they support women being invited to serve as the principal leaders of their congregations.

Our research revealed similar results when it comes to predictors of support. After statistically controlling for a host of demographic, religious, and political variables, including gender, age, education, income, race/ethnicity, we found only four factors that consistently predicted support for women’s ordination:

  1. Congregational practices. Those who attend congregations that ordain women are 40% more likely to support women’s ordination than those who do not.
  2. Religiosity. Those who attend religious services only seldom are about 30% more likely to support female clergy than those who attend multiple times a week.
  3. Political partisanship. Strong Democrats are about 30% more likely to support women’s ordination than strong Republicans.
  4. Theological orthodoxy. Those who believe that their religious tradition should “adopt modern beliefs and practices” are about 20% more likely to support women’s ordination than those who prefer to  “preserve traditional beliefs and practices.”

We also found that one of these four variables organizes the other three: the gender leadership policies of a person’s congregation. In congregations that admit female clergy, Republicans, theological traditionalists, and those who attend services frequently are just as likely as Democrats, theological modernists, and those who attend infrequently to support women’s ordination. The differences are found only among those who attend religious services in congregations with male-only leadership practices.

In other words: nearly everyone supports women’s ordinations when they attend congregations that ordain women, even the traditionalists and conservatives. But in congregations that don’t, it tends to be Democrats, theological modernists, and less frequent attenders who want to see the policy changed.

Our face-to-face interviews revealed some additional interesting patterns that complement our survey results:

  1. When asked to explain their support or opposition to women’s ordination, the most common response was to appeal to scriptures and sacred texts. We found that Christians, Jews, and even one of our Hindu interviewees pointed out passages in their sacred texts that they felt supported their position. (One of our interviewees observed that “everyone is picking and choosing” when it comes to which passages they choose to emphasize.)
  2. Both supporters and opponents of women’s ordination pointed to gender stereotypes to support their positions. Supporters shared their belief that women tend to be better communicators, more nurturing, and are more compassionate than men, making them well-suited to the responsibilities of ministering and religious leadership. Opponents of women’s ordination described how they believed women to be too emotional, impulsive, or “moody” to be effective pastors or priests.
  3. A few respondents even appealed to negative gender stereotypes of men to support male-only leadership policies, arguing that men’s natural selfishness and aloofness means that they are more in need of the leadership opportunities than women who are already more naturally spiritual and caring, even in the absence of opportunities to be ordained.

These findings strongly suggest to us that that leaders of religious traditions and denominations are in a key position to shape attitudes on women’s ordination of those in their congregations. Indeed, other research has shown that members of religious organizations that prohibit women’s ordination become strongly supportive when presented with hypothetical situations where their religious leaders endorse it.

In our research, we find that the policies of the individual’s current congregation is one of the strongest predictors of opinions on the matter, and that people selectively choose scriptural passages and gender stereotypes to support whatever position their congregation currently practices. In other words, most church-goers tend to “follow the leader” when it comes to opinions on women’s ordination.

Dr. Benjamin Knoll is the John Marshall Harlan Associate Professor of Politics at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, @benjaminknoll28. Cammie Jo Bolin is currently a Ph.D. student in the Department of Government at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., @cjobolin. Their book, She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America, is now available from Oxford University Press.


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