No such thing as a pro-choice pastor?

By Paul A. Djupe

With the presidential election presumably sorted now, all eyes are on the Georgia Senate run-off elections to be held in a month. No candidate received a majority of the vote, so the top two candidates for each seat are on the ballot again. There are some fascinating dynamics in play as Trump supporters are not particularly happy with the Republican Senate candidates’ aid to Trump’s ploy to hijack the results and may even boycott the election. But I’d like to focus on one small detail that made the news the other day. While campaigning for Republican Kelly Loeffler, Representative Doug Collins argued that her opponent, Rev. Raphael Warnock, held a satanic (“lie from hell”) position on abortion:

How can you not love a good setup like that? Of course we have data about such matters from the 2009 and 2017 editions of the Cooperative Clergy Study, coordinated by emeritus professor from Calvin University, Corwin Smidt. The data are archived at the American Religion Data Archive (data: 2009, 2017). These are survey responses from Protestant clergy and the denominations included vary a bit, though with some enough overlap to comment on what their abortion attitudes are and how they have changed. Abortion attitudes are complex and this is not a complete measure of them. The question asked whether the respondent pastor agreed or disagreed that, “We need a constitutional amendment prohibiting all abortions unless necessary to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape or incest.” Agreement with the statement is clear in its meaning, but disagreement is not. Disagreement does not necessarily mean that the pastor supports abortion in all circumstances, just that they disagree with a constitutional amendment as the vehicle. It is remotely possible that some ultra-conservatives disagree with this statement because it is not absolute. Still, disagreement with the amendment as presented is very likely a more pro-choice position than agreement with it. Note also that these are not interviews of the same clergy, but samples from included denominations at the two time points.

The results by denomination in 2009 are below and line up according to the expectation that evangelical denominations would be more pro-life than mainline ones. The top 4 evangelical denominations have strong majorities in favor of the constitutional amendment, including 89 percent of Assemblies of God pastors and 83 percent of Southern Baptists. The mainline Protestant denominations (the bottom 4) are more divided, but with substantial majorities of Disciples of Christ (68%) and ELCA (68%) pastors opposed to the amendment. There are clearly pastors who are not pro-life in a way that aligns with the Republican Party’s platform plan in place since 1980 to ban abortion by constitutional amendment (note, there was no GOP platform in 2020 for the first time ever).

How about 2017? Abortion attitudes are notoriously stable in the American mass public and favor keeping abortion legal. Did pastors’ views change across nearly a decade? Actually, yes, and NOT in favor of a constitutional amendment banning abortion. There’s not even evidence of polarization, where groups on either side solidify their stance. Instead, every group moved to greater opposition to the amendment. AOG pastors dropped 8 points to 81 percent in support, while SBC clergy dropped 9 points to 74 percent in support. Among the mainline Protestants, opposition grew as well, with no denominations in favor of the amendment by 2017 (the RCA clergy were, barely, in 2009). Others became even more opposed. The ELCA opposition grew by 12 points to 80 percent. UMC clergy had no majority in favor of either side in 2009, but featured a majority in opposition (60%) by 2017.

It’s not immediately obvious why this is taking place when much of our evidence seems to be suggesting that both mainline and evangelical Protestant denominations are becoming older and whiter. That is, the people in the pews appear to be shifting in the politically opposite direction from their clergy. Regardless of why, the fact that it is happening is important and is consistent with arguments I’ve been making for some time now in a variety of outlets. That is, when clergy face divided congregations or themselves disagree with their congregants, they tend to talk less about political issues or in ways that all sides can agree with. When they talk less often about politics, clergy leave their congregations more susceptible to other influences, such as political and media elites. In this way, the polarization of American religion is not driven by greater amounts of politics in churches, but less. Though, of course, there are always examples of congregations thoroughly suffused with politics.

We have some evidence that corroborates some of this story. The clergy surveys asked how often they addressed a series of issues publicly in the past year. The results are shown below for abortion by denomination and by their attitude on abortion. In almost every denomination, those in favor of a constitutional amendment banning abortion spoke out about abortion more often. The relationships are particularly strong in mainline denominations, but are not absent among evangelicals. Notably, evangelical pastors addressed abortion more often. There are pro-choice evangelicals, though not many. So, this probably highlights the fact that we don’t know what the clergy said, just how often they talked about abortion – it is hard to imagine evangelical pastors taking a hard pro-choice stand in public, though I’m sure it has been done. But there are calls for pro-choice clergy to be more vocal.

I believe I have thoroughly debunked Rep. Collins assertion that there are no pro-choice pastors. There clearly are, or at least are very many who oppose the Republican platform position of banning abortion through a constitutional amendment. And, contrary to what we might think, that number appears to have grown across the last decade. This is particularly interesting because Corwin Smidt has demonstrated that these samples have grown older, whiter, and more conservative across surveys. So, why is there movement against a constitutional amendment banning abortion? I suspect that one important reason is the style. Denominational Protestantism has taken a serious hit since the Republican Party became dominated by Christian conservatives in the mid 1990s. It is well known that the religious nones began to grow at this point, but so have non-denominational Protestants. I would guess that clergy have a good sense, on average, that taking hardline political positions is doing the church no favors at this point. While it may attract people who agree with that stance, it hobbles the ability of the church to do greater outreach to a rapidly diversifying society.

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

Note: color scheme inspired by Canyonlands NP.

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