Mark Chaves: Congregational Tolerance

As much as we hear about how intolerant religious people are, you may be surprised to know what sorts of behaviors and beliefs congregations will tolerate not only in their members, but in their lay leaders.

The 2006-07 National Congregations Study (NCS) tapped into congregations’ positions on certain controversial issues by asking whether various kinds of people can be full-fledged members and lay leaders. Some interesting patterns emerged.

The traditional insistence on teetotaling within some strands of Protestantism now characterizes only a minority of congregations, with the congregations attended by only 15 percent of all churchgoers seeing moderate drinking as an obstacle to membership and the congregations attended by only 29 percent seeing it as an obstacle to being a lay leader. For the majority of congregations, alcohol consumption is not the line-in-the-sand issue it once was. Even within conservative Protestant denominations, only half the churchgoers attend a congregation in which a moderate drinker would not be welcome as a lay leader.

Congregations display less tolerance towards public supporters of abortion rights, cohabiting couples, and homosexuals than they do towards moderate drinkers, but even on these hot-button issues congregations express more tolerance and inclusivity than some might expect to see. Publicly supporting abortion rights presents no obstacle to membership in congregations attended by two-thirds of churchgoers, and it presents no obstacle to lay leadership in congregations attended by 41 percent. The numbers are similar with cohabiting couples. Even when it comes to homosexuality, perhaps the most divisive issue today in American religion, congregations attended by 1 in 5 churchgoers would allow an openly gay person in a committed relationship to serve in a lay leadership position.

We should not overstate American religion’s inclusivity. Beyond the predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Church, noncelibate gays and lesbians may be ordained as clergy within major religious groups only in Reform and Conservative Judaism, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian and Universalist Association, and the Episcopal Church. Restrictions on who may serve as a lay leader remain common. And the welcoming of cohabiting or gay members may indicate a desire to change people rather than embrace them. Only 6 percent of congregations, after all, have adopted written statements officially welcoming gays and lesbians.

The national aggregate statistics described above hide major differences across religious groups. For example, within conservative Protestant denominations, a gay person in a committed relationship would be welcomed as a lay leader in the congregations attended by only 4 percent of churchgoers. Within liberal Protestant denominations, by contrast, more than half of churchgoers (54 percent) attend a congregation in which being gay would not prevent someone from being a lay leader. There are similarly large differences on all of these issues.

In general, black Protestant churches are more similar to white conservatives on these issues and Jews are somewhat more inclusive than liberal Protestants. Catholics are as tolerant as liberal Protestants when it comes to alcohol consumption, but they are even less tolerant than conservative Protestants when it comes to public support of abortion rights.

Whether these current levels of inclusivity and exclusivity strike you as a glass half full or half empty, it is worth noting that in recent decades American society has become increasingly tolerant both of cohabiting couples and homosexuality. I think that liberalizing trend will continue both in the general population and within congregations. In 30 or 50 or 75 years, the reality on these subjects may well be like today’s reality regarding moderate alcohol consumption: a non-issue for the majority of congregations.