A Quick Question
Where do religion and politics merge?
The quick answer -- In more groups than just the Religious Right!
The longer answer-- Take a look at the Mainline Protestant Denominational Washington Lobbies
As Election Day approaches, many see the Christian Coalition and Religious Right as the only faith groups actively involved in politics. However, Mainline Protestant denominations have active interest groups in Washington too. Even though mainline and liberal clergy are not as visibly involved in national-level politics as they have been in the past, mainline Protestantism retains an institutional presence on the national political stage in the form of the denominational lobbies in Washington.
These offices have attracted their share of controversy over the years and voices of dissent have called for their closure. Critics charge that these offices are a waste of denominational resources. They are seen as pursuing a "peace and justice" agenda (advocating for human rights, working to preserve the environment, questioning the use of military force, and championing the disadvantaged). As such, they are often accused of being too liberal.
In recent years mainline clergy have been less visible on the national political stage than they were a generation ago. Their political and social efforts increasingly focus on "acting locally" by addressing local level problems such as the causes and consequences of poverty in urban areas. This strong impetus among clergy to do local level political work may suggest that the Washington offices, with their focus on national and international matters, have outlived their usefulness. This study directly addresses how mainline clergy feel about their denominations’ Washington offices.
What Pastors Say
- The overwhelming majority (84%) of the pastors I interviewed said that it is important to maintain the Washington offices—despite the fact that they themselves do not frequently work in conjunction with the offices.
- One common view was that "The church as a whole . . . needs to know that it has a voice in that political arena even though each of us may not be individually involved." As one Episcopal priest put it, "It's money well spent. One of the things I like about it is it keeps me informed. . . . I've got my job here, so [I’m happy that] our national budget can fund people who can do [work in Washington] in our name and on our behalf."
- A few (8%) clergy also expressed fear that the Washington offices would close: "I'd just hate to see it go. It seems like we in the mainstream [have] kind of given up all that territory, and so I'm glad we're hanging onto it."
Despite the controversy that often swirls around the Washington offices, none of the pastors in our study suggested that their denominations should close the Washington offices. The fact is that these offices do fulfill a vital role for their denominations. They undertake the national political work that many clergy cannot or will not do. To a great extent Washington office personnel and local parish clergy operate in two separate spheres that are distinct but both necessary. There is much work to be done in the local public arena, and clergy find plenty of opportunity and incentive to do it. But there is also a need for a national political voice since many political issues have strong national and international components.
Mutual Benefits for Both Spheres
The Washington offices have an indispensable and irreplaceable niche. This niche is advocacy on national and international issues about which no other denominational official could speak with as much authority or influence. Mainline clergy face an entirely different set of challenges. They need to keep people in the pews and money in the coffers. Most mainline pastors avoid the political realm for this very reason. Pastors who feel a political calling, though, can use local-level political advocacy to shape unique identities for their churches. To do this they often draw upon the resources and rhetoric offered by the Washington denominational offices.
As such, these national political offices remain relevant and useful. The offices offer many services to their faith traditions and the country, not the least of which is to offer an alternative, moderate religious perspective on national politics, as distinct from the religious Right.
By Laura R. Olson, Ph.D. Department of Political Science, Clemson University
Check out a description of the study that produced these findings.
If you have a question for the author of the study you can email Dr. Laura Olson, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, Clemson University at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you would like to visit the web sites for the Washington offices of the Mainline Denominations, several links are listed below:
American Baptist Church – http://www.abc-usa.org/natmin/ogr/index.html
Episcopal Church – http://ecusa.anglican.org/peace-justice/Links.html
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – http://loga.org/
Presbyterian Church, USA – http://www.pcusa.org/pcusa/nmd/wo/
United Methodist Church – http://www.umc-gbcs.org
or visit our more extensive listing of religious group public
To read more on the subject of religious lobbies, check out:
Allen D. Hertzke Representing God in Washington: The role of religious lobbies in the American polity. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1988.
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