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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Networks and Religion: Which Congregations are the Most Politically Active?

In 2003 Kraig Beyerlein and Mark Chaves reported on the political activities of religious congregations. Drawing on a representative sample of religious congregations in the U.S. collected in 1998, they discovered that religious traditions tend to specialize when it comes to political activism. Conservative Protestants tend to do one thing, Mainline Protestants another, and Roman Catholics still another. A particular interesting result was that Black congregations are 7 times more likely than mainline Protestant churches, 24 times more likely than conservative Protestant churches, and 42 times more likely than Roman Catholic churches to invite a political candidate to speak at a worship service.

This led me (Everton 2007) to track where the 2004 candidates for President (and Vice-President) visited in the lead-up to the election in November. Consistent with Beyerlein and Chaves's findings, the Democratic candidates (John Kerry and John Edwards) visited and spoke at far more churches than the Republican candidates (George W. Bush and Dick Cheney). Specifically, Kerry and Edwards visited 19 churches; Bush and Cheney visited only one (see the figure above). Unsurprisingly, most of these appearances occurred at Black Churches. In fact, the one time that President Bush appeared and spoke at a church, it was an African-American one. Perhaps more interestingly, the only candidate to speak at a conservative Protestant church was John Edwards, who spoke at First Baptist Church, Canton, North Carolina.

Mark Chaves (Chaves and Anderson 2008, 2014) has conducted two additional surveys of religious congregations since 1998: one in 2006-07 and another in 2012. He is currently in the midst of a fourth, all of which raises the question if patterns of congregational activism have changed over the last 20 years. The short answer is, yes and no. The two most common forms of church activism are (1) telling people at worship about opportunities for political activity and (2) distributing voter guides. Both appear to be in decline, except among Roman Catholic churches. Voter registration drives and organizing groups to demonstrate or march are the next most common forms of political activism. The former were quite popular in 2006-07, but in 2012 this type of political activity fell back close to the 1998 level. There has been an increase in congregations organizing groups to march or demonstrate, but it largely reflects the efforts of Roman Catholic churches to express their concerns about abortion, same-sex marriage, and immigration (Everton 2015). Other forms of political activism are much less common. Less than 10 percent of congregations formed groups to discuss politics, lobby government officials, or invite elected officials or someone running for office as a visiting speaker. These low levels do not hold for all religious traditions, however. Black Protestant congregations still routinely invite individuals running for political office and government officials to speak at their worship services.

The graph below presents the percentage of politically active congregations (i.e., congregations that participated in at least one of the activities mentioned above) in 1998, 2006-07, and 2012. Although many assume that theologically conservative (i.e., evangelical) Christians are the most politically active religious group, that is not the case. Over the last decade and a half Roman Catholic and Black Protestant congregations have been the most active. In the late 1990s it was Black Protestant congregations, but since the mid 2000s, it has been Roman Catholic ones. Moreover, both Mainline and Evangelical Protestant church activism has declined in recent years although the drop in the latter’s has been more precipitous.

Why are some congregations more politically active than others? Beyerlein and Chaves identified a number of factors (e.g., size), as do I in my new book ("Networks and Religion: Ties that Bind, Loose, Build-up, and Tear Down"). Unsurprisingly ("Networks and Religion: Political Participation and Civic Engagement"), there's some evidence that the degree to which congregations are integrated into their local communities (that is, their congregational networks) is positively associated with their level of activism. For example, even after controlling for a number of factors, there's a strong positive correlation between the number of social services a congregation offers to the surrounding community and its level of political activism. Which way the causal arrow runs is difficult to discern, however. Sounds like an ideal topic for future research.


Beyerlein, Kraig and Mark Chaves. 2003. "The Political Activities of Religious Congregations in the United States." Journal For the Scientific Study of Religion 42:229-46.

Chaves, Mark and Shawna L. Anderson. 2008. "Continuity and Change in American Congregations: Introducing the Second Wave of the National Congregations Study." Sociology of Religion 69:415-40.

______. 2014. "Changing American Congregations: Findings from the Third Wave of the National Congregations Study." Journal for the Scientific of Religion 53:676-86.

Everton, Sean F. 2007. "Whose Faith-Based Initiative? How Kerry and Edwards Wooed African American Churchgoers." Books and Culture: A Christian Review, January/February, pp. 42-43.

______. 2015. "Church Activism." Pp. 368-71 in The Sage Encyclopedia of Economics and Society, Vol. 1, edited by F. F. Wherry and J. Schor. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

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