WASHINGTON, Nov. 28 (RNS) -- A new survey of Episcopal and Lutheran clergy shows that pastors in the two churches do not shy away from delivering political sermons from the pulpit, and are more likely to talk politics when their congregations disagree with them.

The preliminary findings from a three-year study of 60 congregations in the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) hint that mainline clergy are more political than they are thought to be. The final study is expected to be released next year.

The survey was conducted by Christopher Gilbert, a professor of political science at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., and Paul Djupe of Denison University in Granville, Ohio.

Gilbert and Djupe said they wanted to explore what role mainline clergy play now, after years of historic leadership on slavery, prohibition and civil rights. The researchers also wanted to know how much political information parishioners received at church, and how that might influence their political activities.

"We learned that both ELCA and Episcopal clergy are more likely to speak about politics publicly, in and out of church, when their congregations are a minority in their communities," Gilbert told a Lutheran newspaper, the Metro Lutheran.

Among the report's initial findings:
  • Church members who have an interest in politics say their pastor is more political than the pastor thinks he or she is.
  • Messages on controversial topics -- such as homosexuality, civil rights and abortion -- are more clearly received by parishioners than non-controversial political messages.
  • Pastors are more likely to tackle controversial topics when their parishioners disagree with them, but parishioners who disagree politically are more likely to tune out those messages.

    The study comes from an initial survey of 3,000 Lutheran churches and 3,000 Episcopal churches. Of those, 38 Lutheran and 22 Episcopal congregations were surveyed about political questions.

    Gilbert said "at least 15 or 20" pastors and parishioners sent back their surveys, saying that the constitutional separation of church and state prohibited them from linking the pulpit with politics. Gilbert said that was not the case.

    "The Constitutional prohibitions against mixing religion and politics are institutional, not personal," he said. "People are free to discern whatever political implications from their faith lives that they wish, from nothing to all-out consonance."
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