Can Religion Reduce Conflict?

By Paul A. Djupe

[photo credit: Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications]

It seems like religion is in the news constantly as a source for division and scandal. No doubt some of this perception can be tied to the fact that “Court evangelicals” always  seem to be available to offer a supporting word for the next embarrassing utterance from their “dream president” in the White House. With religion so deeply invested with polarization in American politics, it’s easy to overlook the absence of conflict – the instances when religious organizations work dutifully to overcome division.

Such an instance was reported by Emily Miller at RNS the other day, describing the steps the United Methodist Church (UMC) is taking to stave off a schism  – a division of the church – over the treatment of LGBT clergy and participation in same-sex marriage. They are considering three plans and the “One Church” plan is interesting because it is a political solution to what may be an intractable value conflict. The plan proposes a sort of states-rights federalism and a robust system of individual rights, in which regional conferences could decide to ordain openly gay clergy and allow participation in same-sex marriages, while no pastor would be required to do so. The UMC, under this plan, would eliminate generally applicable language from their Book of Discipline.

If this sounds a lot like American federalism, you’re on track. In fact, this sounds a lot like what Congress has proposed at various times to hold the country together. Those compromises, like the one made involving Missouri in 1820, engaged just such a “divide and unite” idea. The Missouri Compromise did not make anyone happy, but it did help to delay the American Civil War for 40 years.

The extension I want to make is the degree to which religious organizations are involved in these sorts of conflict reduction strategies. The answer is that it depends on where you look and how you define it, of course, but let me give you a few examples.

Writing in the Sociology of Religion, in 1995 Wood and Bloch wrote about how the UMC General Assembly was modeling civil discourse around the issues of…oh hey, homosexuality. So this current effort reflects a deep and sustained engagement at holding the denomination together. Denominations are constantly engaged in this sort of negotiation, especially given the pace at which society is changing. By dint of the diversity of the US, denominations bring together often considerable diversity of views that they must then reckon with. That is a perfect opportunity to implement the norms and processes of deliberation, which are designed to negotiate difficult conversations.

But denominations are not the only religious organization grappling with disagreement. Congregations struggle with this too. They tend to attract members through a wide variety of programming and then have to negotiate the diversity that results from that net. And it turns out that clergy report commitment to the same sorts of deliberative norms designed to work through disagreement: mutual respect, full participation, turn taking, representing a diversity of views. Here’s a look at a selection of Christian denominations that The Brian Calfano and I surveyed in 2014:


The UMC, it turns out, is a good denomination to study, perhaps an ideal case, given these results. UMC clergy are at the high end of each measure (this scale is out of 5, which stands for “strongly agree”). They, and PCUSA clergy, are more likely to agree that everyone should participate, that participants need to talk through their differences, that it is essential to have diversity present, and that they will explicitly encourage participants to think seriously about the views of others. Southern Baptist and Greek Orthodox clergy are typically more likely to disagree than the mainline clergy (and Reformed Church in America clergy are all over the place).  There is less adherence overall to universal participation – exposure to a diverse debate is surely informative enough.

While there is variation in adherence to those deliberative norms, I think it is important to recognize what they could be. Stereotypes, bad ones for the most part, of religious groups are that they instill a particular perspective, shun dissent, and seek uniformity. That may still not be wrong, but it is critical to see that they adopt a process that affords a sense of individual rights and dignity while seeking consensus. And, these results probably reveal the difficulty, even impossibility of reaching consensus  – there will always be disagreement in congregations.

There’s another element to this that is not just organizational process. Clergy also appear to shift their public arguments when they face a diverse congregation. With several colleagues, I’ve found numerous instances of clergy diversifying their arguments to better match a divided congregation. In one instance (a piece with Jake Neiheisel), they did not use very controversial (demeaning) arguments about LGBT people when they knew at least one member was ‘out.’ In other work with Amanda Friesen, we found clergy who disagree with their congregants were more likely to emphasize individualist values, perhaps out of a desire to build respect for their divergent place. While it may be self-serving, building respect for people with a difference of opinions is a democratic good.

In this way, we might see democratic value in complex organizations, religious or not, but especially those that extend across the United States. Madison’s system of a large, diverse country making democracy hard works on religious organizations as well, encouraging more people to see and work through political and other differences while seeking the common good. On the flip side, it is an open question what the rise of non-denominational congregations means for the link of congregations and democratic goods.

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.

For Further Reading (most can be downloaded from my website)

Djupe, Paul A. and Jacob R. Neiheisel. 2008. “Clergy Deliberation on Gay Rights and Homosexuality.” Polity 40(4): 411-435. DOI:10.1057/palgrave.polity.2300095

Neiheisel, Jacob R. and Paul A. Djupe. 2008. “Intraorganizational Constraints on Churches’ Public Witness.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 47(3): 427-441. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2008.00419.x

Neiheisel, Jacob R., Paul A. Djupe, and Anand E. Sokhey. 2009. “Veni, Vidi, Disseri: Churches and the Promise of Democratic Deliberation.” American Politics Research 37(4): 614-43. DOI: 10.1177/1532673X08324216

Djupe, Paul A. and Brian R. Calfano. 2012. “The Deliberative Pulpit: The Democratic Norms and Practices of the PCUSA.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51(1): 90-109. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2011.01623.x

Djupe, Paul A. and Laura R. Olson. 2013. “Public Deliberation about Gay Rights in Religious Contexts: Commitment to Deliberative Norms and Practice in ELCA Congregations.” Journal of Public Deliberation 9(1) Article 1. jpd/ vol9/iss1/art1

Burge, Ryan P. and Paul A. Djupe. 2015. “Emergent Church Practices in America: Inclusion and Deliberation in American Congregations.” Review of Religious Research 57(1): 1-23. DOI: 10.1007/s13644-014-0157-2

Djupe, Paul A. and Amanda J. Friesen. 2018. “Moralizing to the Choir: The Moral Foundations of American Clergy.” Social Science Quarterly 99(2): 665-682. DOI: 10.1111/ssqu.1245

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