Elesha Coffman: When pulpit and pew disagree

What can Christian leaders do when the official teachings of mainline Protestant churches and the political ideologies of the laity diverge?

Political scientist Tobin Grant, who writes the Corner of Church and State blog for Religion News Service, recently produced a graph charting the political views of the members of American churches and religions.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the graph was the sharp divergence between the official teachings of mainline Protestant churches and the political ideologies of the laity.

On the axis marking opinions about government regulation of morality, mainline churches -- with the exception of American Baptists -- favored less regulation. This placement makes sense, given mainline churches’ openness on such topics as abortion and marriage equality.

The real surprise lay on the other axis, which marked opinions about the size of government. Once again, the mainline churches, with the exception of American Baptists, clustered together -- but on the side favoring a smaller government offering fewer services rather than the side favoring a bigger government offering more services.

On this measure, the mainline represented the extreme “small government” position, farther right than evangelicals.

This placement comes as a shock. Mainline Protestant churches, after all, are known for their official commitment to social justice. These are the churches that adopted the social gospel a century ago, the ones that routinely issue statements against discrimination, the ones that lobby Washington, D.C., to strengthen the social safety net.

Way back in 1908, the Methodist Social Creed declared that the church stood:

For equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life. …

For the highest wage that each industry can afford, and for the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised.

For the recognition of the Golden Rule and the mind of Christ as the supreme law of society and the sure remedy for all social ills.

Why, then, do mainline laity report such forceful opposition to an activist government? And how is the leader of a congregation supposed to address this divergence from official teaching -- and, quite possibly, from his or her own views?

The short answer to the “why” question is demographics. Considered as a group, mainline Protestants are the whitest, wealthiest church bodies in America. Members are likely to think of government social programs as something for which they pay with their tax dollars rather than something from which they benefit.

On the survey that yielded the graph data, they voted with their pocketbooks rather than their prayer books.

The “what to do about it” question is trickier, and history offers little help. Since the days of the Methodists’ landmark social creed, mainline pastors have reported a disconnect between the theology they learned in seminary and the message their parishioners were willing to hear.

For example, when more than 2,100 readers of the mainline flagship magazine The Christian Century wrote letters in 1928 to congratulate the editor for 20 years of service, many expressed a sense of isolation from the members of the churches they led.

Archibald G. Adams, a Baptist pastor in Chicago who admired the editor’s opposition to war, wrote: “Your Christ-like stand on War, on the race question, and on the problem of modern industry has not only coincided with my humbler opinion but has put nerve and sinew into my own feeble attempts to do my bit in the winning of a new world, which seems so hopeless a struggle at times.”

Rural and Southern pastors expressed even less hope of converting their parishioners to progressive Christianity.

When Century editors noted this disconnect in the early 20th century, they cycled through three responses.

One response admitted that progressive views were held by a minority, then proceeded as if only that minority really mattered. The second response advised patience, promising that the dullards would see the light eventually. The third accepted a noble defeat, sighing that no prophet is accepted in his hometown.

This uncomfortable mixture of optimism and defeatism might sound familiar. Being reminded, repeatedly, of the gap between a desired “new world” and the old one in which we actually minister takes a toll.

Examining a different sort of gap, though, provides a more hopeful picture. There is often a mismatch between the kinds of large-scale actions people evaluate in the abstract and the kinds of small-scale actions they are willing to undertake themselves. In other words, laypeople who report disdain for the welfare state might be the same people who provide food, clothing, shelter and child care in their communities.

Sociologist Robert Wuthnow described this gap in an essay for the edited collection “The Quiet Hand of God: Faith-Based Activism and the Public Role of Mainline Protestantism.” He wrote:

A majority of mainline members do not want their denominations to have a stronger voice in Washington and are uneasy with the talk show appearances, office seeking, and social movements that have become associated in recent years with fundamentalist and evangelical leaders. Many members prefer to work more quietly at the local level, especially by doing volunteer work in their communities, attending lectures about social issues, taking part in campaign politics, and supporting such congregational activities as soup kitchens and day care centers.

Wuthnow continued by pointing out that the very demographic traits that dispose mainline Protestants against “big government” also enable their less overtly political activities to be especially effective:

Mainline members do not draw high walls between themselves and the rest of society, preferring instead to participate fully in the workplace, in higher education, in discussions of scientific and technological developments, and in the activities of community organizations. Because they occupy relatively privileged places in their communities, mainline members can be politically and socially efficacious in these ways, rather than having to support distinctly religious movements in order to be heard.

Perhaps, then, the “Think globally, act locally” slogan gets the dynamic backward. An older saying, “Charity begins at home,” more closely reflects mainline Protestants’ approach to social problems.