Congregations are Doing Acceptable Amounts of Political Engagement

By Paul A. Djupe, Denison University

[image credit: Vox and Getty Images]

I’m always frustrated when I see pollsters such as Pew report that “More than six-in-ten Americans (63%) say churches and other houses of worship should stay out of politics.” It’s not because I want more (or less) religious involvement in politics, it’s that I don’t think this is a very good question. It reminds me of the persistent findings that people don’t like Congress, but support their own representative. That is, the more appropriate question is whether people support their OWN congregation’s political involvement, not some vague amalgam of other religious bodies. But I suppose it’s an empirical question, so let’s get to it.

In October 2020, at the height of the voting phase of the presidential election, we asked 1,306 worship attenders about the level of political engagement in their house of worship, soliciting whether the congregation needed to be less political, more political, or had just the right level of political engagement. The (weighted) response is almost the exact opposite of the Pew result from a few years ago – 60 percent believe their congregation was just right or should be more political, while 40 percent say it should be less (or way less) political.

The distribution of these responses by religious tradition is below and shows that almost every tradition is comfortable (combining the just right + more responses) with the level of politics in their congregations, with the exception of the religious minorities in the sample (Jews and “other faith” which includes Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and others). It is no surprise that Black Protestants are the most comfortable – three quarters say it is just right or want more – with mainline Protestants and non-denominationals following just behind.

This pattern presents a bit of a problem, since mainline congregations are somewhat less politically engaged than Black Protestants both historically and in this survey data. In fact, Black Protestants are near the top end of hearing political topics from their clergy while mainliners are at the bottom (though not at zero). What we also know about these two religious traditions is that Black Protestants tend not to disagree with their clergy, while mainliners are likely to. So, does comfort decline with increasing clergy political engagement, especially when they disagree?

No, in fact, comfort actually rises as they hear clergy engage more political topics. When clergy are most active by our measure, 25 percent of the sample says they want more whereas there are effectively none who want more who hear zero topics. And, furthermore, disagreement with their clergy over Trump does not alter that finding. The figure below shows the portion who want more (combining the two “more” responses), less, and just right separately for those who agree with their clergy in their support level for Trump and those who disagree (a difference of 25 points out of 100 counts as disagreement – 39 percent of the worship attending sample scored at 25 points or greater).

Of course, some of this is due to long-running selection and socialization processes – this is not an experiment where we randomize disagreement. It’s true that people who are only marginally connected and disagree with their congregations are much more likely to leave. But I’ve also shown in previous research (pdf) that satisfaction with the worship elements of the congregation is linked to support for the clergy’s politics, regardless of their disagreement.

But not all support for congregational political involvement is about intra-congregational dynamics. We also need to consider the threat environment (perceived or real). While conservative Christians once had far less support for congregational political involvement, that is no longer true and has not been for awhile. These days, the centrality of Christianity is in question due to demographic change and increasing rates of disaffiliation. So it is no surprise that ardent Christian nationalists, who conflate the interests of Christians with the US, are much more likely to be comfortable with their congregation’s political involvement (they are also more likely to report their clergy addressing political topics, so this isn’t support for quietism).

Perhaps one of the explanations for that link with Christian nationalism is that they are hearing that Christians are and will be persecuted in the US if they are not in control of the government. Not surprising, beliefs that Christians are being persecuted are linked with comfort with the congregation’s politics. I doubt that this support rises to the level of Robert Jeffress’s First Baptist, where Trump appeared at a rally recently and politics is out in the open, but they clearly want more overt political engagement. However, this is the first case where many of those who believe Christians are being persecuted in the US take the opposite tack and want less political engagement. At the far right end, there are few who are satisfied that the congregation is at the right level and almost a plurality want less involvement. If believers are truly being persecuted, and there’s no evidence that’s true, then something must be done, whether it is to get more involved or close off the community from the world.

There’s a simple story out there that Americans don’t want religion mixing in politics. The reality is that they don’t want other people’s religion mixing with their politics. Instead, they tend to support their own congregation’s involvement and only a minority want less of it. That’s partly a function of intra-congregational dynamics where people are accustomed to their social group. But some of it is motivated by the threat environment that has been manufactured to keep getting conservative Christians to the polls at high rates. When people admit that “Christians deserve persecution if they fail to reelect Donald Trump” which was one of our survey questions (motivated by a quote from Ralph Reed), then you know they are willing to sanction almost any behavior to avoid that, perhaps even violence.

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.

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