Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox
President, Research Director, Public Religion Research
In 1969, sociologist Jeffrey K. Hadden warned of the “gathering storm in the churches,” between an increasingly liberal clergy and a moderate to conservative laity. The new Mainline Protestant Clergy Voices Survey, however, shows a diminishing clergy-laity gap. In fact, over the last two decades, we show the clergy holding fairly steady in terms of political ideology and partisan affiliation, and the laity moving into closer alignment with that position over this period.
While the storm between clergy and laity may have largely dissipated, there are signs that clouds are gathering on another front, between male clergy and a growing number of female clergy who hold more progressive views across the board and who have significantly different political priorities than their male colleagues. The results from our recent CVS, the most comprehensive survey of mainline clergy ever conducted, point to what might be more accurately called a gender “chasm” than a gender “gap.”
Just a generation ago, mainline Protestant clergy were made up almost exclusively of men. Over the last two decades, the number of women clergy in the mainline increased nearly three-fold, from only 7% in 1989 to 1-in-5 (20%) in 2008. While still a minority in the church, as the percentage of women in the ministry continues to grow, female clergy have the potential to dramatically shift the balance of opinion of mainline churches and denominations on a variety of key issues. They will also increasingly influence mainline congregants, who make up nearly one-quarter of all voters and 18% of the general population–an estimated 40.7 million Americans.
The Clergy Gender Gap on Social Issues
Consider the stark gender differences on the volatile issue of same-sex marriage, which most mainline denominations have been fiercely debating over the last few years. Nearly 6-in-10 (58%) female clergy believe that gay couples should be allowed to marry, compared to only about one-quarter (27%) of male clergy–a gap of more than 30 points.
This clergy gender gap is more than three times as large as the gender gap among all Americans. One-third of all women support allowing gay couples to be married legally, compared to one- quarter of men, an 8-point gap. Among all mainline Protestants, the gap between men and women is even smaller at 5 points (31% to 36% respectively).
This pattern is also clear on the issue of abortion, where the clergy gender gap is 34 points. Nearly 8-in-10 (78%) female clergy say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to only 44% of male clergy. Among all Americans, the gender gap is only 5 points on this issue, and among mainline Protestant laity, the gap is only 3 points.
The Clergy Gender Gap on Economic Issues, Priorities, and Political Identity
But this fault line between male and female clergy is not just confined to social issues. We found double-digit gender gaps also on key economic issues and issue priorities as well.
For example, 9-in-10 female clergy say that the federal government should do more to solve social problems such as unemployment, poverty, and poor housing. Among male clergy, about three quarters (76%) agree. More than 8-in-10 female ministers say that more environmental protection is needed, even if it raises prices or costs jobs, compared to two-thirds of male ministers. And 85% of female clergy support the government guaranteeing health insurance for all citizens, even if it means raising taxes, compared to about 6-in-10 (63%) male clergy.
Female clergy also hold starkly different issue priorities than their male colleagues. Half of all female clergy say that social welfare problems, like poverty, education and health care are the most important issues in the country that the church should address, compared to only about one-third (34%) of male clergy. Male clergy are more than twice as likely to cite cultural issues like abortion or same-sex marriage as most important (12% to 5% respectively).
These different issue positions, not surprisingly, lead to divergent political identities. More than three-quarters of female pastors identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, compared to half of all male clergy. Male clergy are about four-times more likely to identify with the Republican Party (40% to 11% respectively). Likewise, nearly three-quarters (74%) of female ministers identify as liberal, compared to about 4-in-10 (42%) male ministers.
Here, as above, the clergy gender gap far exceeds the gender gap in the general population. Overall, women are only slightly less likely than men to identify as Republican (25% vs. 30% respectively), and the proportions of women and men overall who identify as liberal are nearly identical (24% vs. 25% respectively).
Tyre and Bethany Collide
The data from the Clergy Voices Survey do not solve the riddle of exactly why such a chasm exists between men and women clergy in the mainline denominations. But we can rule some things out. First, despite our tongue-in-cheek reference to Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, the fact that the gender gap is far less pronounced among mainline congregants and the general population points away from any gender essentialism argument. Second, the gender gap is not merely a function of denominational differences. Although there is some variation, women are roughly equally represented among the seven denominations included in the study.
One more likely explanation for the gap is rooted in the experiences of women clergy, who remain a distinct minority. Despite the fact that all of the mainline denominations in our study have been ordaining women at least since the 1970s (some much longer), in many cases, women in ministry are still blazing trails. In this context, it may be that the challenge of successfully navigating barriers and prejudices appeals to women who are more progressive, or it may be that the experience of walking this path pushes them in more progressive directions. Regardless, for now, there are signs pointing to a potential gathering storm in the mainline Protestant denominations between the growing number of more progressive women clergy and the current establishment of more conservative male clergy.
NOTE: About the Mainline Protestant Clergy Voices Survey
The Mainline Protestant Clergy Voices Survey (CVS), conducted by Public Religion Research, is the largest survey of Mainline Protestant clergy conducted in the last seven years. Go here for full results of the survey, including a report and top line questionnaire with survey methodology.
Robert P. Jones, Ph.D., is the president of Public Religion Research and the author of “Progressive & Religious: How Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist Leaders are Moving Beyond the Culture Wars and Transforming American Public Life.”
Daniel Cox is research director at Public Religion Research.