Back when Catholic, mainline Protestant, Jewish, and evangelical congregations burgeoned and coasted as agents and beneficiaries of the Eisenhower-era "religious revival," many (of us) critics found too many of them appearing to be little more than enclaves for nurturing private existence. 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 obsessive concern for nuclear family life, among other factors, led congregations often 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, but significantly, their public side has become more evident. And those other agencies in public life have often proven to be dysfunctional. Despite this important turn, we still know too little about the workings of congregations. That is changing. Mark Chaves and three teammates describe the National Congregations Study of 1998 in a recent issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (December 1999). The authors are mostly interested in describing their method of sampling and interviewing, exposition that only social scientists could love, but which social scientists should love (to help keep us honest). If their sampling was accurate and interviewing apt--and we trust this quartet of researchers--there are some surprises in respect to congregations
and politics. While congregations are much involved in public life through voluntary associations and the like, most do not participate explicitly in partisan politics. The most common activities? About one-third of congregations talk about political life during worship. One-fourth tell people at worship about political opportunities, and 17 percent distribute voters' guides. Fewer than 10 percent engage in more explicit forms of political organization like demonstrations and marches. A majority of worship attenders, 62 percent, are in congregations that have engaged in at least one of these activities recently. Now for a surprise: "Fewer than half the congregations distributing voter guides used guides produced by organizations identified with the religious right." One-third of the informants did not know who had produced guides they distributed. And 39 percent named an organization associated with the religious right. "This means that only about 7 percent of congregations distributed voter guides produced by the religious right, and only about 10 percent of the American churchgoing public has been exposed to these guides through their congregations." Media, politicians, and voters, take note.
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