Back when Catholic, mainline Protestant, Jewish, and evangelicalcongregations burgeoned and coasted as agents and beneficiaries of theEisenhower-era "religious revival," many (of us) critics found too many ofthem appearing to be little more than enclaves for nurturing privateexistence. That was fine, as far as it went, but did it go far enough?Almost fifty years ago, the white flight to the suburbs and the obsessiveconcern for nuclear family life, among other factors, led congregationsoften to be seen as irrelevant alongside other agencies in public life.These years, many Catholic parishes, mainstream Protestant congregations,and Jewish synagogues appear to be smaller, weaker, and less-attended, butsignificantly, their public side has become more evident. And those otheragencies in public life have often proven to be dysfunctional. Despite thisimportant turn, we still know too little about the workings ofcongregations.That is changing. Mark Chaves and three teammates describe the NationalCongregations Study of 1998 in a recent issue of the Journal for theScientific Study of Religion (December 1999). The authors are mostlyinterested in describing their method of sampling and interviewing,exposition that only social scientists could love, but which socialscientists should love (to help keep us honest).If their sampling was accurate and interviewing apt--and we trust thisquartet of researchers--there are some surprises in respect to congregationsand politics. While congregations are much involved in public life throughvoluntary associations and the like, most do not participate explicitly inpartisan politics.
The most common activities? About one-third ofcongregations talk about political life during worship. One-fourth tellpeople at worship about political opportunities, and 17 percent distributevoters' guides. Fewer than 10 percent engage in more explicit forms ofpolitical organization like demonstrations and marches. A majority ofworship attenders, 62 percent, are in congregations that have engaged in atleast one of these activities recently.Now for a surprise: "Fewer than half the congregations distributing voterguides used guides produced by organizations identified with the religiousright." One-third of the informants did not know who had produced guidesthey distributed. And 39 percent named an organization associated with thereligious right. "This means that only about 7 percent of congregationsdistributed voter guides produced by the religious right, and only about 10percent of the American churchgoing public has been exposed to these guidesthrough their congregations." Media, politicians, and voters, take note.