By Paul A. Djupe, Denison University
[Photo credit: The Atlantic]
The House Select Committee on the events of January 6 opened this week with arresting testimony from Capitol police. One, in particular, testified that, “It was clear the terrorists perceived themselves to be Christians.” You can watch here:
Of course, these officers were not the only ones to note the Christian presence at the Capitol among the rioting Insurrectionists – that case has been well established by journalists at the time. The Proud Boys were praying, signs claimed, “Jesus is my Savior, Trump is my President,” and there were many other symbols, actions, and words that made this a Christian Insurrection.
I’m concerned now with whether the Christian community addressed these troubling facts in the aftermath. The Insurrection is one of the more serious threats to American democracy in a long time and it was led from within; it reflects terribly on a group, which of course is very diverse, that purports to be concerned with spreading Jesus’ love. Some religious leaders were concerned with this enough to compose a statement, but was this a subject of discussion in American congregations after January 6?
I collected data about this in March of 2021 with Jason Adkins (Morehead State University) and Jake Neiheisel (SUNY, Buffalo) several months after the Insurrection, which is perhaps ideal since it gave time for people to hear their clergy address it but was also not so long a period that they would be likely to forget. We collected about 3,550 respondents through the panel provider Lucid. This is not a probability sample, but we applied raking weights to make the sample look representative of the nation on gender, race, education, and age.
We asked a few questions that will help with this inquiry, the most important of which is whether any respondent who reported attending worship services more often than never had heard their clergy address “The January 6 Insurrection (attack on the Capitol)” in the past few months. Among that part of the sample (72% reported attending worship more often than never), 13 percent reported hearing their clergy talk about the Insurrection. Not everyone attends every week of course, so some people have more opportunities to hear their clergy as the figure below shows. But it didn’t increase at the same rate for all partisans. It is likely more clergy were talking about the Insurrection as 19 percent of weekly attenders reported hearing about it compared to only 6 percent of those who attend a few times a year, on average. But the rate from seldom to weekly attending Democrats goes from 8 to 24 percent compared to a rise from 5 to 13.5 percent for Republicans. Regardless, these figures are not high.
I’ve written before about the prophetic potential of American religion and found some among mainline Protestants in an earlier study. Subsequent studies have found clergy to be highly constrained by their congregations – they have a hard time pushing their congregations to change their minds. Disagreement, especially about politics, is simply not something that American congregants tolerate well and it inspires leaving congregations, especially among marginal members.
Were the sixth or so of American attenders who heard their clergy talk about the Insurrection those who needed to hear them talk about it? Were they Republicans? The figure below suggests that Democrats were much more likely to hear their clergy talk about the Insurrection than Republicans in the same religious traditions. For instance, 17 percent of evangelical Democrats heard their clergy, while just 7 percent of Republicans did (of course, most are Republicans so that 7% is a much larger raw number than the 17 percent of Democratic evangelicals). This pattern repeats across almost every religious tradition in the sample, with exceptions. Democratic and Republican Mainline Protestants, Jews, and those of other faiths were equally as likely to hear their clergy.
That evidence suggests that clergy really can’t move the needle much on people’s opinions about the Insurrection, but was there any movement at all? There are so many questions to ask people about the Insurrection and I’ll cover more of them in upcoming posts. But 2021 was ripe for some introspection among Christians about their role in supporting the Trump Administration’s Christian nationalism that culminated in the Insurrection. Do Christians realize that this pattern of behavior has hurt their image in the US?
We asked just that – do respondents agree or disagree that, “The Christian presence at the Insurrection on January 6, 2021 has hurt the image of Christianity in the US”? Overall in the sample, 26 percent disagree, 37 percent are equivocal or don’t know, and 37 percent agree. The following figure shows how the results look among partisans for those who heard and did not hear from their clergy about the Insurrection (this is only showing results among Christian identifiers who attend worship more often than never). It’s about what you would expect. Clergy ARE able to move the needle, but only among Independents and Democrats – they are about 10 percent more likely to agree that the Christian image has been damaged after hearing from their clergy. However, Republicans appear to move in reverse (though not significantly), which suggests that at least some of their clergy offered words supportive of the Insurrectionists.
That leaves me wondering how the results add up for religious traditions. The problem with the analysis is that even with this large sample we’re running into quite small categories, which means it’s hard to tell statistically if there’s a difference between groups. Still, the results are below and show a consistent difference for those who heard from their clergy (the results come from a statistical model with controls for demographics and partisanship in recognition that Democrats were more likely to hear about this). The religious nones (yes, a decent chunk say they attend worship services) were the only group to register a statistically significant increase in views that the Christian image was hurt by the Insurrection due to their clergy addressing it. But the other one that is close to statistical significance is interesting: evangelicals (coded by their denominational affiliation, to be clear). Part of that movement is due to Democrats moving, but there had to be some others too.
It’s also worth noting that there are significant differences between the beliefs of denominational evangelicals and non-denominationals, who are often lumped in with their denominational cousins. Non-denominationals are much less likely to think the Insurrection hurt the Christian image – the least in this grouping – but it seems clear that their clergy who commented were on a different script than denominational evangelicals. Non-denoms who heard their clergy barely budged in their beliefs (by about 3 percent), while denominational evangelicals increased their agreement (by about 8 percent).
It is not surprising that few clergy would be willing to engage with the Insurrection if they have Republicans in their midst (which is highly likely!). This time of intense polarization has meant people just do not have open minds about political facts about the effects of public policy and political leaders. Taking it on in the face of disagreement is brave and surely comes with consequences, which helps explain why it was so rarely done.
Paul A. Djupe, Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog (check out his posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.