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May 06, 2007

Politicized Religion Revisited: Some Data

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Not long ago I wrote about how politicized a nearby Lutheran church seemed.

My wife and I continued our church-shopping in the University of Washington neighborhood, giving the Presbyterian church a test-drive last Sunday.

The place was packed. Off-duty police were on hand to manage traffic along the street and the nearby parking garage. The service was pretty satisfying for me, one who has never been comfortable in church.

Supporting the pastor was a choir of perhaps 40 people along with a brass (plus drums) ensemble: excellent music. The sermon was intellectually interesting, being largely a discussion of the city of Antioch -- its founding and its status at the time of Saint Paul. Apparently it was a seriously sinful town that was surprisingly receptive to the preaching of Paul and others.

The pastor noted that Antioch was a pretty "diverse" place -- Levantines, Jews, Greeks, Romans, etc., and that diversity itself is an okay thing. Then he flipped the concept, noting that the diverse elements found singularity in Christ: neat job.

All-in-all a good show, though Nancy was disappointed that there was no communion. But hey! -- these folks are Calvinists. (Follow up: today they had communion.)

There was no talk from the pulpit about "hard-core capitalists" (as in the Lutheran service). And the church bulletin didn't mention peace rallies or meetings of left-wing political parties (as the Lutheran church also did).

I hope I've established that the Presbyterian church seems to me far less political than the Lutheran church I described in the earlier post. Now here's the interesting bit: The Presbyterian church offers five services each Sunday whereas the Lutheran church has only one. Three of the Presbyterian services are "traditional" and are held Sunday morning. On Sunday afternoon are two non-traditional services, and I don't know from experience if these are politicized or simply feature guitars or modern music, though I suspect the latter.

For the heck of it, I surfed the Web to find out how many Sunday services other university-area churches offered.

The Roman Catholic church had three regular masses and one small-scale one. The Methodist church had two services. Holding only one service were the Christian (Disciples of Christ), Congregational and Lutheran churches. The Episcopal church offered two services, but one might be a lesser one.

What about involvement in politics? I don't know about the Episcopalians (but have my suspicions), Catholics and Disciples of Christ. But the Lutheran, Methodist and Congregational churches are strongly anti-Iraq war. Moreover, that Congregational church appears in the local news from time to time because its clergy take stands on various politically-related issues.

Setting aside the unknowns, churches that seem politicized are doing far worse in terms of attendance than the non-political one. Yet Seattle (inside the city limits, especially) is a pretty left-wing place. Perhaps the politicized part of the populace is non-religious (distinctly possible) or maybe the politicized aspects of the churches are not an important draw factor for religiously-inclined liberals. Possibly there is another main reason.

I haven't yet talked to members of the Presbyterian church so I don't know whether it's a refuge for conservative northeast Seattle-ites or if the impressive services are the draw.

My conclusion thus far is that politics and religion don't seem to mix well even in a highly-educated, left-leaning area.



posted by Donald at May 6, 2007


I can't imagine the Pastor presiding over 5 services in one day! Is there an A team that handles 2 and a B team that gets stuck with 3? Is there a Head Pastor and a Pastor 2nd Class? Not trying to be flip just wondering about the logistics.

Posted by: ricpic on May 6, 2007 4:23 PM

ricpic -- The church has a staff of half a dozen or so pastors with various duties. The head guy does the greeting and the sermon while others read the gospel, lead prayers, etc. Today four pastors were sitting up front and making contributions to the service. As best I can tell (I'm new to this, ya know), he's directly involved with the three "traditional" services (8:30, 10:00 and 11:30 a.m. The other two take place later in the afternoon and my guess is that some of the other pastors handle them.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 6, 2007 5:17 PM

Yeah, Antioch was a pretty diverse place. But then the Muslims conquered it, and that was that. I'm sure that went unmentioned.

It is puzzling that the the cities to to which the letters of the New Testament are addressed are now all Muslim, but no mainline Christian denomination likes to mentions this fact, or how it came to be... of course Muhammad and his heir's adventurings are largely irrelevant these days - there was only one pre-20th century event in the Middle East after all - THE CRUSADES THE CRUSADES THE CRUSADES!!!

Posted by: adrian on May 6, 2007 6:48 PM

A lot of people have talked about how lefty churches have more trouble attracting members. I believe Rodney Stark wrote about this? Supposedly a church gets founded with a small nucleus of poor people and a restrictive theology. As time goes on they rise in status and loosen up theologically and lose people to new, poorer churches.

Much as we like to complain about the Catholic Church's conservatism they have built a religious edifice that has lasted 2000 years. Now if we could get them to lay off the altar boys...

Posted by: SFG on May 6, 2007 8:35 PM

Please don't exaggerate. The Ephesians, Colossians, and Galatians all lived in what is now Turkey, but the Philippians, Thessalonians, and Corinthians lived in what is now Greece, which was Muslim for some centuries, but isn't now. And don't forget the Epistle to the Romans.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on May 6, 2007 9:46 PM

Liberal political activism occurs at some mainline Protestant churches and at some Catholic ones, but it's dwarfed by conservative political activism at the fundamentalist churches.

Posted by: Peter on May 6, 2007 10:41 PM

Hi Donald, I can not speak for what is happening today, but I was raised in a Presbyterian church in Middletown, NJ during the 1980's and politics was never mentioned.

And it was a wonderful place. Very friendly, very warm.

It is because of that place that I have never been able to become "Anti-Religion".


However, my parents became disillusioned with the Church. Apparently, behind the scenes, there was quite a bit of politicking for different positions within the church.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on May 7, 2007 9:23 AM

Levantines aren't a separate ethnic group, are they? Just any inhabitant of the eastern Mediterranean littoral, AFAIK. Your statement is the equivalent of saying that New York City has WASPs, Irish, Jews, Black, Hispanics... and North-easterners.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on May 7, 2007 9:24 AM

IP -- I used the term "Levantine" as a catch-all for all those peoples native to the eastern shore of the Med who weren't Jews. Too much trouble to research & list them.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 7, 2007 9:55 AM

I no longer have any reason to set foot in a church other than for weddings and funerals, so I was stunned by something that a Christian friend casually mentioned to me lately. In the small Wisconsin town where I live, more than one of the local churches is showing "An Inconvenient Truth" to its parishioners. And we're talking about major denominations, too, not the Holy Church of Enviro-Nuts. Our town is too small to have a movie theater, so apparently the churches carry out the function of lefty propaganda.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on May 7, 2007 11:08 AM

In the past few years, I've returned to the Catholic Church after many years of wandering.

I'm surprised at how little my pastor has to say about the political issues that outsiders assume dominate discussion in the Church. For instance, the pastor seldom says anything about gays, except to suggest that we should pray for those with AIDS or do charitable work for same.

Certainly, the church bulletin announces meetings of right to life organizations, marriage support groups, etc.

And, I am also surprised that a full house is in attendance most Sundays. The news media had convinced me that the pews were empty. Wishful thinking on their part.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on May 7, 2007 12:04 PM

With one exception, the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches around here are mostly secularized centers of psycho-babble and left-wing politics. The Lutherans are less so, esp. the Missouri Synod places; I have the impression that some of their ministers actually believe in God, something seemingly novel for mainline Protestant clergy these days. The Methodists are all over the place, depending on the congregation. The Congregationalists are just about extinct. The rest are Baptists, Pentecostals of various kinds, or belong to one of several mega non-denominational fundamentalist churches. One of the latter seems to be very political, the others less so. The non-denominational places generally put a big premium on entertainment value, esp. in the music. The Catholic churches, of which there are many, vary, but most are not political in their services.

Posted by: thaprof on May 7, 2007 12:52 PM

Power with God? I see the disconnect from the perspective parishoner, sure.

The Hood Company

Posted by: Brian Hadd on May 7, 2007 1:31 PM

My conclusion thus far is that politics and religion don't seem to mix well even in a highly-educated, left-leaning area.

Sound's about right. Seattle's largest church, Mars Hill, is also quite apolitical (and also Calvinist).

Regardless of the reason, protecting the church from self serving politicians seems like a good thing.

Out on the eastside, things seem to be different. Antioch Bible Church is, I believe, active in organizing opposition to gay marriage among other causes.

Posted by: peter johnson on May 7, 2007 1:35 PM

"Our town is too small to have a movie theater, so apparently the churches carry out the function of lefty propaganda."

Our town is the same way, only with the politics reversed. Big deal. Some churches are liberal, some conservative. Isn't all this a good thing?

And I'm confused about this post in general. Is it your intention to showcase that liberals are in the minority? Frankly I'm stunned that you don't mention the massively popular and highly organized conservative Fundamentalist movement in your "Politics and Religion" post. Again, this simply comes off as "look at those liberal wackos, so out of touch with the mainstream."

Posted by: the patriarch on May 7, 2007 3:11 PM

Let's not forget, as a condition of their tax exemptions churches are supposed to steer clear of political activism, whether liberal or conservative. Obviously it's a rule that is ignored in practice.

Posted by: Peter on May 7, 2007 4:27 PM

Patriarch -- My subject matter was the political involvement of churches in the neighborhood of the University of Washington as compared to the number of Sunday services offered (a proxy for membership).

Since, as far as I know, there are no obvious right-leaning churches in that area, I didn't deal with that end of the political spectrum.

I noted that Seattle is mostly to the left politically, yet the one church in the liberal University area that seems to be doing well apparently avoids politics -- churches stressing leftist politics are not doing as well. Such was the gist of the post. Sorry if I wasn't more clear about this.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 7, 2007 7:48 PM

A church not far from me here on the Upper West Side of Manhattan would seem to not be learning this lesson. I'm too secular myself to know the denomination - but between the Yoga classes, Homeless guys are encouraged to sleep on the steps, the illuminated peace sign, and countless posters about left-wing causes, they are definitely a prime example of the phenomenon of religious institutions pandering to secular audiences.

They have plans to build ugly condos directly on top of the beautiful but crumbling romanesque-revival building in order to fiscally survive.

Posted by: Jonas Cord Jr. on May 8, 2007 3:44 PM

"Yeah, Antioch was a pretty diverse place. But then the Muslims conquered it, and that was that. I'm sure that went unmentioned. It is puzzling that the the cities to to which the letters of the New Testament are addressed are now all Muslim..."

Of course, there are still many Christians in Lebanon. Heck, there are 800,000 Assyrian Christians in Iraq, and 500,000 more in Syria -- not that you'd ever hear this self-proclaimed "faith-based" Administration mention that.

And then there's Nassim Nicholas Taleb's description of himself: "I was born in Amioun (also spelled Amyoun), the Greek Orthodox Levantine heartland (we are what Cavafy calls ellhnosurwn or, what people call less poetically the Antiochans -- and I am a native French speaking Hellenosuron son of Jesuit educated French citizens to confuse matters)." (emph. added)

But I'm sure Mr. Taleb is 1300 years old, and is describing his native Christian people as "Antiochans" solely because he's lived so long... {cough}

Posted by: Hal O'Brien on May 8, 2007 5:01 PM


At First Baptist Church--a megachurch of over 10,000 in Springdale, Arkansas--Pastor Ronnie Floyd's 2004 "God and Country" celebration challenged the audience to prayerfully seek "God's candidate." The helpful audiovisual accompaniment barely stopped short of explicitly endorsing Bush, but damn near had him in an SA uniform with flag backdrop and "Got mit uns!" in the caption. Of course, John Kerry got the Immanuel Goldstein role in that little Two Minutes Hate. There were some attempts to go after the church's tax-exempt status because of it, but all unsuccessful.

Posted by: Kevin Carson on May 9, 2007 11:25 AM

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