Since the late 1980s, Dr. Corwin Smidt has engaged in research related to the ways in which clergy choose to engage in civic and political life. His first denominational surveys of clergy were conducted in 1989, and he has periodically conducted random surveys of American Protestant pastors ever since. The most recent survey of clergy across ten different denominations was conducted in 2017, funded in part through a Louisville Institute grant, largely replicating his previous surveys conducted in 1989, 2001, and 2009, thereby allowing him to assess change and continuity among American Protestant clergy sociologically, theologically, and politically over nearly two decades.
Members of the clergy are important leaders within American religious and public life, working at the “grassroots” of religious life to foster and sustain religious vitality among their congregants and among the American people. Their strategic and influential position results from the prevalence of religious houses of worship in the U.S., as well as the large number of Americans who claim affiliation with and are actively involved in a religious faith group.
Churches serve as moral communities that can shape citizens’ moral thinking and define their commitment to particular courses of behavior. With pastors serving as central figures within these communities, clergy can play a significant role in the life of adult members, with the words of clergy, particularly from the pulpit, possessing authority for congregants.
The American religious and social environment has changed dramatically over the past several decades in terms of membership—and therefore, also, in the religious affiliations historically associated with various groups. Cultural assimilation has diminished many religious differences that were earlier linked to custom and heritage. Larger numbers of parishioners embrace religious faith to attain subjective personal well-being rather than to provide theological truths or foster faithful living.
Philosophical and structural changes are evident as well, with American society moving toward holding moral convictions as a private matter and ever-growing polarization evident in political life. Increased challenges within church structure and shifting generational composition within the ranks of the clergy are also continuing. All of these factors have an impact on the clergy who serve as church leaders, and these changes can impact their thoughts and behavior as well.
The following denominations have been included in these survey efforts across time: Disciples of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Presbyterian Church USA, Reformed Church in America, United Methodist Church, Assemblies of God, Christian Reformed Church, Mennonite Church USA, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, and Southern Baptist Convention. The data collected in these different surveys have now been distributed to the American Religious Data Archive (ARDA.com] for free public dissemination, thereby enabling other interested parties to analyze the data for those own purposes.
- Corwin E. Smidt, Henry Institute Senior Research Fellow