In the seven or eight mainline denominations that make up one-fourth of America, women were ordained to the clergy in unprecedented numbers between 1988 and 1998. So say Laura S. Olson, Sue E. S. Crawford, and James L. Guth in an article on "Changing Issue Agendas of Women Clergy" (see the June 2000 issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion). For example, women make up 21 percent of Disciples of Christ clergy, 17 percent of the ministerial ranks in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and 12 percent of clergy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. They are thus easily sighted, but not yet in many of the most prestigious pulpits.

We do not deal much in church news, but the authors make clear that their studies affect the public order. They issue the usual cautions about the smallness of their sample for interviews, the "suggestive" nature of their findings, and all that. But a certain and clear profile is emerging.

"The fact that women clergy must make political choices in a professional setting within which they are clearly a minority--and sometimes a discounted minority--makes analysis of their political choices all the more interesting." They give cues. Some participate directly in politics. The surveys a decade apart reveal that the women clergy tend to political liberalism and continue to remain "sympathetic to various forms of feminism." Only 3 percent would classify themselves as antifeminist, though only 56 percent get classified as strong feminists (as are 24 percent of their male counterparts).

The interviewers were less interested in stands taken on issues and more concerned with what the issues were and are. The "spiritual and moral" concern that the nation is turning away from God and traditional "family values" fights--long foci for the religious right--came in seventh, or last. Also at the bottom were "Defense and foreign policy" (down, down since 1988) and "Environment" (too complex to focus well). Nearly all the women expressed pro-choice sentiment, but abortion came in sixth among issues.

The largest category by far was "economics and social welfare," reflected in concern for the widening gap between rich and poor, demonizing the poor, and the like. "Tolerance and rights," including racism, was second, and "public order" and concern for "civility" was third. Then came "gay rights," which had moved up in importance over ten years. Conclusion: women clergy show continuity in their commitments, are not utterly swayed by the public agenda, do some of their own defining of issues, and are and will remain major players. Their choice of personal issues, say the authors, will have a bearing on the public agenda. Expect the trio's 2008 sample to reveal more influence and subtle changes in choice of issues.

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