America’s pastors – the men and women a majority of Americans look to for help in finding meaning and purpose in their lives – are even more politically divided than the rest of us, according to a new data set representing the largest compilation of American religious leaders ever assembled.
Like their congregants, religious leaders have sharply divided themselves along political lines. Leaders and congregants of Unitarian and African Methodist Episcopal churches are overwhelmingly Democratic, as are those of Reform and Conservative Jewish synagogues. Those of several Evangelical and Baptist churches are overwhelmingly Republican. If religious denominations were states, almost all of them would be considered “Safely Democratic” or “Safely Republican,” with relatively few swing states.
Yet pastors are even more politically divided than the congregants in their denomination: Leaders of more liberal denominations tend to be even more likely to be registered as Democrats, and those of more conservative denominations even more likely to be registered as Republicans.
Historically, researchers have found that churchgoers do not want to hear political messages from the pulpit. “Religious people do not always adopt the political cues given to them in church,” said Gregory Smith, a researcher at the Pew Research Center who specializes in religion. “That’s just not how it works.”
Instead, religiosity – how often someone attends church, rather than which church a member is a part of – has been a better measure of party affiliation than denomination. (Frequent churchgoers tend to be Republicans.)
There’s evidence that religious leaders’ politics can simply reflect those of their congregants. Surprisingly, this pattern is particularly strong with Roman Catholics, even though the Catholic Church is a highly centralized organization where individual parishes do not choose their leader.
As a group, Catholics and their pastors are a swing state, nearly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Yet this masks a wide regional variance: Catholics in states like Kansas, South Dakota and Oklahoma are more Republican, while those in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maryland are more Democratic.
The researchers found that Catholic priests’ political affiliations varied just as much, with a nearly linear relationship between the partisanship of priests and congregants across states. That is, congregations that tended to be strongly Republican were, on average, more likely to have Republican-registered priests, and more liberal parishes were more likely to get priests registered as Democrats.
“While, logically, there are other explanations for the match between Catholic priests and their parishioners, the most compelling is that the Catholic hierarchy seeks to place their priests in politically congenial places,” said David Campbell, a co-author of “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” in an email.
The data also depicts an aging clergy for all denominations. The median age of all pastors is 57, and one in four were 65 or older. Only about one in eight pastors were 40 or younger.
This reality is most pressing for Catholics. No denomination’s religious leaders are older; the median age of the more than 16,000 priests identified by the researchers was 62. Catholics have long identified an aging priesthood as a challenge.
Full story, including data graphs, at The New York Times.