Liberal congregations more politically active, study reveals

  |  Source: Religion News Service

William J. Barber II speaks at the Red Letter Revival in Lynchburg, Va., in 2018. (RNS photo by Jack Jenkins)

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WASHINGTON (RNS) — White evangelicals who comprise President Trump’s base have attracted attention for their political clout, but a new study of 1,262 congregations across the United States shows liberal/progressive congregations—particularly Black churches—have become substantially more engaged in political activity compared to their conservative counterparts.

“Overall, it seems that, since 2012 and possibly since 1998, the political mobilization of congregations on the left has increased more than the political mobilization of congregations on the right,” wrote Mark Chaves, a professor of sociology, religious studies and divinity at Duke University, and Kraig Beyerlein, professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, in a paper for the December issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

That conclusion is one of many drawn from the latest wave of the National Congregations Study, a representative sample of multiple religious congregations consisting of in-person interviews with Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist leaders across the country. The study was launched in 1998, with subsequent data collections in 2006-07, 2012, and the last in 2018-19.



The most recent round of survey data found about half of congregations (49 percent) engaged in at least one of several political activities the survey asked about, up from 41 percent over 1998. Those activities ranged from efforts to register voters, to lobbying elected officials, to endorsing candidates for political office.

The study found that 4 percent of congregations endorsed political candidates, even though doing so put their nonprofit tax status at risk, and 17 percent of congregations that had not endorsed candidates indicated they would do so if the law forbidding it was changed.

Among Black churches, 28 percent reported they would endorse candidates if they could, the highest of all the religious groups studied. By comparison, only 11 percent of white evangelical congregations said they would endorse political candidates if tax law was changed.



In a political favor to his base, Trump repeatedly has claimed he signed an executive order to get rid of the Johnson Amendment, a provision of U.S. tax law that bars nonprofits from endorsing political candidates. In reality, he can’t undo that tax law by executive order.

But the survey showed that even if he could, it would mostly benefit liberal and progressive churches, who appear more willing to endorse candidates.

“The irony is that the Trump administration was thinking they’d release all these politically active evangelicals, but in fact it would be more liberal churches that (would) more likely go that route,” Chaves said.


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Immigration policy rallying point for progressives

Of all the political issues animating religious groups, immigration appeared to spark the energies of progressive congregations more than any other, the study found. Some congregations declared themselves sanctuaries and concerned congregations have built a national social movement around immigration reform. Catholics, white mainline Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists were most active on immigration.

While 5 percent of liberal congregations nationally in 2012 engaged immigration issues, 40 percent of liberal congregations said they did so in 2018 and 2019.

That activism on immigration, as the authors note, is directly tied to the Trump administration’s actions—its crackdown on undocumented residents, its now-abandoned family separation policy for migrants crossing the border, and its efforts to curtail drastically the number of refugees and asylum seekers.



The study also asked religious leaders whether their congregations took action on abortion, poverty and LGBT rights. But there were few statistically significant changes on those issues from years past.

The study did not ask whether congregations took action around race, and the data was collected before the recent national reckoning on police brutality against Black Americans.

Noel Andersen, national grassroots coordinator for Church World Service, said he was not surprised by the surge in activism on immigration.



“What we see this president saying, we know is morally wrong,” Andersen said. “There’s a huge impact in the faith communities in terms of how they’re responding in taking action, calling their congresspeople, even being willing to risk taking people into sanctuary and confronting these unjust laws head-on.”

Andersen said Church World Service had about 450 congregations involved in sanctuary efforts before Trump took office. That jumped to 1,200 by 2018.

The authors of the study note that the activism of liberal congregations should be viewed in its totality. There are three times more conservative congregations in the U.S. than liberal congregations.

Doug Long, a United Church of Christ pastor in Raleigh, N.C., who has helped organize a coalition of progressive churches locally, said liberal churches are driven not by politics for the sake of power, but for the sake of justice as they understand it.

To that end, he said, many are working furiously to defeat Trump.

“It’s important for people to know that there’s a significant part of the church, and religious life more broadly, that finds the Trump administration completely diametrically opposed to what they understand the mission of the church to be,” Long said. “This administration has just completely reversed everything that we feel the church stands for in terms of social justice.”


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