It’s no surprise that certain U.S. religious groups have strong political leanings: Southern Baptist Republicans and Jewish Democrats are predictable enough archetypes. A new paper by two political scientists adds a new layer to these long-standing stereotypes: Clergy tend to be even more partisan than their parishioners. While it’s not clear whether this translates into politicized sermons or social activism, it’s evidence that religious life may be yet another area where many Americans are pulled into exclusive partisan spheres by their community leaders.
One of the reasons this research matters is that the data set is so novel, and so large. Eitan Hersh, an assistant professor of political science at Yale who’s soon headed to Tufts, worked with Gabrielle Malina, a doctoral student at Harvard, to search 40 denominations’ websites for a list of their clergy. They were able to match 130,000 pastors, priests, and rabbis with their voter-registration records, and used that to figure out each clergy member’s political affiliation. From there, they compared religious leaders to the congregants in their denominations using data from another survey, the Cooperative Congressional Election Study. The researchers claim this is the largest list of religious leaders ever assembled. “They’re people that are very hard to survey because it’s hard to figure out who they are,” Hersh said in an interview.
Hersh said they were expecting to find the greatest political match between congregants and leaders of more traditional denominations that have high levels of worship participation—among Orthodox Jews, say, or conservative evangelical denominations. The thinking was that clergy in those faith groups might have more direct power or influence in people’s lives, while congregants in liberal denominations wouldn’t necessarily follow their pastor or rabbi’s every word.
But that wasn’t what they found at all. Instead, they discovered that religious leaders generally tend to be more partisan than their congregants, including those on either end of the ideological spectrum. Not only that: Religious leaders’ denominational affiliations seem to shape their political leanings in a way that’s not the case for their congregants. Once factors like age, race, gender, and geography are considered, denomination isn’t a very strong predictor of regular people’s political affiliation, they write. Among pastors, however, the partisan split by denomination is “dramatic.”
For example: Clergy for Reform and Conservative Jews and Unitarian Universalists are almost uniformly Democrats. Fundamentalist and Independent Baptist pastors, along with Lutheran pastors in the Wisconsin and Missouri synods, are strongly Republican. While clergy tend to work in denominations whose members lean the same way they do, pastors and rabbis tend to lean harder in one direction or the other. Only a handful of denominations had large showings of independent or politically unaffiliated clergy, including Seventh Day Adventists and those who are Greek Orthodox or in the Orthodox Church of America.
What’s interesting is where the pattern of partisanship didn’t hold true. Hersh expected that “job-market pressure” would affect some Protestant clergy’s political affiliations, for example—congregations might try to find pastors who meet their political needs and tastes. Conversely, he suspected that Catholic priests, who are centrally trained and placed by the Church, would be immune to pressures to match their congregations. Yet Catholic clergy were nearly evenly split between Democratic and Republican affiliation, with a significant unaffiliated share—a roughly even match with Catholics in the United States. In “the denomination you would probably least expect the pastors or the leaders to match the people,” he said, “you have this remarkable consistency.”
A few demographic factors complicate the data. While the researchers estimate that their data cover roughly two-thirds of religious groups in the U.S., there are big blind spots. Pastors at non-denominational churches, for example, are harder to find because their names may not be listed on any central website. Information on Mormon leaders is not available to the general public, the researchers said, and there’s no reliable central directory for mosques and imams. It was also much more difficult to find data on black pastors compared to white pastors, Hersh said, which may have skewed the findings on how well various Baptist and Pentecostal congregants match their leaders. Data for prominent black denominations like Church of God in Christ, for example, did not match the researchers’ voter-registration lists.
Region also plays a part. When the researchers split up the data into the geographic categories used in the Census—New England, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, South Atlantic, South, Mountain West, and Pacific—they found that partisan affiliation varies for most congregants and clergy depending on where they live. But even if pastors and parishioners in Portland are more likely to be liberal than their co-religionists in Peoria, clergy still tend to be more partisan than people in the pews, no matter where they are. Episcopalian clergy in all regions, for example, were 20 to 25 percentage points more Democratic than than their congregants. Conversely, Lutheran pastors in the Wisconsin and Missouri synods were 15 to 20 percentage points more Republican than their congregants across regions.
This study is not a nationally representative sample of clergy. The methodology means the findings are skewed toward highly organized and networked religious groups and tends to neglect religious minorities. Partisan affiliation also isn’t the same as voting: This data was gathered prior to the 2016 election, and it’s possible that many of the clergy in data set voted against their party in November.
But as an initial look, this data is useful: It’s evidence that denomination has an affect on clergy political affiliation. The next step is figuring what exactly that effect is, and why it exists. It could be that clergy “are more politically engaged—they read the news more, because they are leaders whose jobs touch on politics,” Hersh said. The pattern may also be driven by different factors depending on the group, he said: Opposition to abortion or gay marriage may matter strongly for some Christians, for example, while support for Israel may swing the affiliation of some Jews.
Moving forward, these research questions will be important for understanding America’s current political environment. President Trump has made a priority of empowering pastors to speak freely about politics; he has claimed that a May executive order protects them from tax penalties if they endorse or oppose candidates for office (although in reality the order changed very little). In a fiercely politicized time, more clergy are choosing to push into the political realm. Increasingly, they may find that they can’t avoid it. As leaders craft messages from the pulpit, their partisan views may creep in. And that means worship will be one more sphere of American life shaped by politics—a place where people hear messages they may already believe, spoken by leaders who believe them even more strongly.