05 How Should Clergy Respond?

How Should Clergy Respond?


The goal of protecting religious liberty is not merely to allow individuals to be left alone while they practice their religion. Protecting individual conscience is but part of a framework meant to bring citizens of diverse belief together to construct public life. This requires us to think through another set of questions as we consider the various social problems that have come together in contemporary America:

  • How can we think about advocacy for religious liberty in ways that contribute to the common life of a divided society?
  • How can religious liberty protections be good news not only for particular religious groups, but for citizens everywhere, regardless of religious belief ?

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of uncertainty among clergy about what their role is in answering these questions. This chapter explores how pastors see their role in a changing world. There is widespread agreement that American clergy have a uniquely important role to play when it comes to preserving religious freedom in the US. But what precisely is that role? Do pastors feel equipped to lead, or are they feeling uncertain about the future? Many clergy believe it is harder to speak out today than in the past. Why?

The Role of Clergy in Religious
Freedom Debates

Barna president David Kinnaman’s recent book Good Faith reports that the majority of people of faith, even though they feel misunderstood, persecuted, marginalized and extreme in society today, also believe their faith is primarily a positive contribution to society. Large majorities of practicing Christians, and especially Millennials and evangelicals, report two confident attitudes: they feel their faith is a force for good (88%), and that it is essential for society (75%).

This is also true for American faith leaders, a majority of whom believe their position as clergy grants them a unique and important role to play in society. Among clergy from the 2014 study there is widespread agreement that “clergy members have a uniquely important role to play when it comes to preserving religious freedom in the US.” In particular, African American clergy (78%) and non-mainline Protestant clergy (72%)—especially Southern Baptists (78%)—have a high view of the their role in this regard. Two-thirds of Catholic (67%) and non-Christian faith leaders (63%), and six in 10 mainline Protestant clergy (61%), agree on their unique role.

For the most part those who don’t perceive a unique role for clergy in preserving religious freedom believe they bear the same responsibility as any citizen. It is striking, however, that one in 11 non-Christian clergy believes that “clergy members should have no role to play with regard to this issue due to separation of church and state.” That percentage is far larger than any other group. Among all Christian segments just 1 percent or less took that view. This may be another instance of tribalism, as Christian clergy are likely to view the separation of church and state in America, a traditionally Christian nation, in ways quite different from how a non-Christian cleric might see it.

So what, exactly, do Christian pastors believe they should do to preserve religious freedom? Christian ministers were offered a list of specific actions related to social and political engagement, and asked whether each action was a major or minor part of their role, or not part of their role at all. Substantial majorities in all denominational segments identified discipleship as their top priority, saying that the major parts of their role are to help Christians have biblical beliefs about social issues, think well about culture in general and understand religious freedom in the US.

Pastors saw themselves as less responsible for direct political and social engagement. Less than half (48%) said defending the rights of other religious groups was a major part of their role. Yet if Christian clergy want to play a principal role in preserving these freedoms, it’s important to do so for all people—both as a witness to Christ’s servanthood and radical humility and as a purely practical matter. That is, if the First Amendment does not apply equally to all citizens, it is endangered for all citizens, including Christians.

Speaking Out

Helping Christians have biblical beliefs about specific social issues is no easy task. In Good Faith, the research reveals that nearly half of non-religious adults perceive Christianity to be extremist. Clergy of all stripes are speaking into a culture that is rife with tension and more contested than ever. The good news is that a plurality of Christian clergy in 2014 felt that speaking from the pulpit about moral and social issues isn’t any more difficult than it was five years ago.

Among Protestant pastors, the difference between 2014 and 2015 / 16 is significant. Those who claimed it was harder dropped seven percentage points from 44 percent to 37 percent in just a year or two. Pastors are feeling that speaking out from the pulpit on moral and social issues that challenge people’s thinking and behavior is either no more difficult than it’s ever been or actually getting easier.

The minority of clergy members who feel speaking on cultural issues has gotten harder offer a number of reasons for this change. Among the most common are that scripture is viewed as less authoritative; issues surrounding LGBT people are fraught with emotion; the cultural perception that Christians are intolerant; overall declining morality; a liberal media that seems unfriendly to Christians; the difficulty in finding common ground with people who disagree; and a lack of unity among believers. Unsurprisingly, then, there are close connections between the issues that divide Americans and the issues that clergy find most difficult to address.

Feeling Reluctant to Speak Out

While some Christian pastors believe it is harder than five years ago to speak from the pulpit on moral and social issues, far fewer say they frequently feel limited in their ability to do so out of concern people will be offended. In fact, while African American Protestants are the group most likely to say speaking out has become harder (77%), they are least likely, along with Southern Baptists (6%), to say they frequently feel limited in what they can say (8%). Catholic leaders are most likely of all the clergy groups to say they frequently feel limited in their ability to speak out on these issues (13%).

If we look at responses across time, an interesting picture emerges. From 2014 to 2015 / 16, the percentage of Protestant pastors who never felt limited dropped by 9 points, while those who occasionally felt that way increased by 8 points.

The likeliest explanation for this shift is that between 2014 and 2015 / 16, a number of pastors found that political remarks, which in previous years went mostly unnoticed, were rather suddenly received with some hostility. It is also possible that during that window more clergy had a bad experience on Facebook or Twitter after posting a link or video that might have been seen as unobjectionable in previous years but elicited a stronger response in the current context. As a result, clergy who once felt completely at liberty to speak about political questions felt the need to be more cautious.

What specific issues cause clergy to feel limited in what they can say? Issues related to sexual ethics and particularly LGBT questions dominated, with 44 percent of Protestant ministers saying they felt limited in their ability to address issues related to homosexuality while 22 percent said the same of same-sex marriage and gay rights. One factor could be that, as LGBT individuals have become fully accepted in common life, some advocates for LGBT rights have also become more confrontational.

Nearly one in five clergy cited abortion as an issue they felt limited in their ability to address. Others cited morality more generally, politics and marriage as limiting issues. Interestingly, religious freedom is further down the list, with only 7 percent of clergy feeling limited in their ability to speak out.

A majority of these same pastors say they worry more about the reactions of those inside their faith community (64%) than those outside (36%), reflecting both a concern for retaining members as well as a pastoral priority of discipleship. Parishioners and members are the primary concern of the pastor, and it is therefore unsurprising that any clergy member would be primarily concerned with those in their own pews.

African American Protestants are an exception: These ministers are divided on which constituency’s reaction is of greater concern. This difference has remained steady since 2014, indicating their split concerns are strongly entrenched.

Feeling Pressure to Speak Out

Coming at this question from the other angle, we also asked Christian clergy how often they feel pressured to speak out before they’re ready to do so. A majority in every denominational segment rarely, if ever, feels that kind of pressure. Those in each segment who frequently feel pressured are a similar proportion to those who frequently feel limited.

These pastors feel pressured to address a variety of issues. Perhaps ironically, the five most popular are the same issues on which some pastors feel limited to speak about—signaling the great tension they are living with in these areas. Specifically, they list LGBT people, orientations and identities; same-sex marriage and gay rights; abortion; sexual morality; and political parties, candidates and policies. Again, pressure to speak about religious freedom is low on the list.

What this data likely tells us is that not only is America fragmenting, churches are as well. The result is that pastors ministering in more politically diverse churches will feel squeezed on both the right and the left while ministers in more politically homogeneous churches will feel pushed further and further toward the consensus of their particular congregation. Both pastoral independence and political centrism could be casualties of these trends.

Although they’re most concerned about the reactions of those in their faith community, pastors are more likely to feel pressure from people outside their church to speak out on cultural issues. For example, two out of five non-mainline Protestant ministers (40%) say that, were they to speak out on moral issues, they feel more concerned about the reactions of people outside their church than inside. But three out of five non-mainline pastors (59%) say they also feel pressure to speak out from people outside their church, rather than from those inside.

This shifted significantly from 2014 to 2015 / 16. Those clergy who feel pressured from inside their church to speak out on cultural issues that they’re not ready or not comfortable discussing rose from 44 percent to 69 percent, a marked rise in a short period. Clergy are clearly feeling a great amount of pressure to speak into some of the most controversial issues of the day and, looking at the data above, it’s clear that those are mostly LGBT issues. These points of cultural tension continue to be the battlegrounds for religious discourse in America.

Being Good Neighbors

There is a lot of work to be done by both clergy and ordinary American citizens if we are to rebuild public trust between neighbors and between citizens and institutions. Even small steps will require that religious leaders and people of faith take up an understanding of religious liberty that is not chiefly concerned with protecting their right to practice their religion without being bothered, but that instead sees in religious liberty the opportunity to freely serve one’s neighbor according to conscience.

The goal of religious liberty is not to exacerbate tribal divisions by protecting the rights of groups to discriminate against each other. The goal is, rather, to strengthen the whole political community by preserving space in which people can freely serve one another as neighbors. If we are to see a change in tribal isolation, it will be because we learn to reorient our concerns for religious freedom away from our own needs and toward our neighbors.

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