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
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.