Study: Sunday school teachers wield political clout

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WACO—Volunteer lay leaders serve as political opinion leaders within churches, with considerable power to deepen—or bridge—gaps between religion and politics, a new study by Baylor University researchers reveals.

brandon martinez130Brandon MartinezThe study—“Sunday School Teacher, Culture Warrior: The Politics of Lay Leaders in Three Religious Traditions”—is published in Social Science Quarterly. It is based on analysis of the Baylor Religion Survey, conducted by the Gallup Organization.

“The clergy may have the pulpit for captive audiences, but that’s not the whole story. Lay leaders have a different and distinct influence from the clergy. People look to them for cues, which could either reinforce or challenge the stance of the clergy,” said researcher and co-author Brandon Martinez, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Baylor. Co-researcher for the study was Lydia Bean, assistant professor of sociology at Baylor.

The research shows nonordained leaders in all three traditions—evangelicals, mainline Protestants and Catholics—not only are the most engaged in church activities, but also are the most politically engaged individuals in their congregations. They set the tone for small-group interaction by teaching Sunday school, leading prayer groups, chairing committees, hosting social gatherings and organizing community service.

Comparing three religious traditions

The study revealed distinct differences within lay leaders in the three religious traditions. Political concerns, whether dealing with the economy, social justice, abortion, cohabitation or stem-cell research, vary by tradition.

“If lay leaders signal certain political affiliations or attitudes, others in the congregation may be more likely to consider these attitudes as ‘authentic ‘ or ‘essential’ attributes of the group’s religious identity,” researchers wrote.

“Evangelicals have a more unified base of lay leaders than mainline Protestant and Catholics, so the rank-and-file evangelical gets a more consistent message about how to link their religious identity and belief in politics,” Martinez said.

“This helps complete the picture of how evangelicals are able to achieve greater levels of political conformity than mainline and Catholic traditions.”

The study also found:

• Evangelical lay leaders are more morally conservative in their attitudes and more politically active and informed than evangelicals in general, and more strongly identified with the Republican Party.

• Mainline leaders have a stronger commitment to social justice than others in their tradition, but this is not associated with particular policy attitudes or political party identification.

• Catholic lay leaders are more economically progressive than others in their tradition, but do not differ from the “rank-and-file” members on moral issues. 

“Interestingly, regular Mass attendance is associated with a greater moral conservatism, but lay leaders are more likely to support economic redistribution,” Martinez said. “Thus, Catholics receive contrasting political messages from leaders within their tradition that are not consistent with one political party’s side of the culture wars.”

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