Study: Mainline clergy growing even more liberal

(RNS) Over the last decade, mainline Protestant clergy have inched leftward, with more identifying as Democrats, supporting gay rights and calling on the government to solve social problems, according to a recently released survey.

The "Clergy Voices" survey published on Friday (March 6) builds on similar studies conducted in 1989 and 2001, according to scholars at Public Religion Research in Washington.

Sometimes called the "quiet hand of God" for their social justice work outside the media's glare, mainline Protestants make up 18 percent of the country, according to researchers. But they are "arguably the most neglected of the major religious groups in the American religious landscape," said Robert P. Jones, president of Public Religion Research, who co-authored the survey.

Mainline Protestant clergy have shown "remarkable consistency over the last 20 years in political ideology and party affiliation," said Jones. Fifty-six percent of the 1,000 clergy surveyed identified as Democrats, compared to 53 percent in 2001 and 1989.

Meanwhile, more than three-quarters of mainline clergy say the federal government should be more involved in solving problems like poverty, low-income housing and unemployment. Sixty-eight percent said the same in 2001.

Nearly 70 percent of mainline clergy called for more environmental protection, up from 60 percent in 2001. And two-thirds favor outlawing capital punishment, a jump of 8 percentage points from 2001.

At the same time, clergy support for gay rights -- an issue that has vexed almost all mainline denominations -- has steadily increased. In August 2008, when the survey was conducted, nearly eight in 10 clergy said gays and lesbians should have the same rights and privileges as other Americans, up 9 percentage points from 2001.

Researchers found significant disparity among clergy from the seven mainline denominations surveyed, however. Clergy from the United Church of Christ and Episcopal Church tend to be more liberal, while those from the United Methodist Church and American Baptist Churches USA are more centrist or conservative on political and social issues.

There's also a gap between the pulpit and the pews: mainline clergy are more likely than their congregants to identify as Democrats, support legalized abortion and gay marriage, and strongly agree that the government should guarantee health care.

Conducted by mail, the survey is composed of a random sample of 1,000 senior clergy from each of the seven largest Mainline Protestant denominations: the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, American Baptist Churches USA, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ.

With 2,658 clergy responding to the survey, the margin of error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.