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Life in the 'purple' zone: Conflict in pews, silence in pulpit

By Richard Cimino

In a highly polarized country, researchers are finding that congregations are similarly divided and that such divisions can lead to changes from preaching content to lower church attendance.

Just as there are “purple” states comprised of “red” Republican and “blue” Democratic residents, researchers are analyzing “purple congregations,” particularly in mainline Protestant bodies but also in other denominations.

In a study presented at the October meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in St. Louis, researchers Leah Schade of Lexington Theological Seminary and Wayne Thompson of Carthage College found that the clergy of purple congregations tend to tread lightly when it comes to controversial topics in their sermons.

Their 2017 survey of 1205 mainline clergy from 44 states was based on a convenience, or non-probability, sample, though it matches the FACT (Faith Communities Today) survey in being representative of the demographic makeup of these states.

The clergy in their study were mostly liberal (62 percent) and Democratic (62 percent) who had voted for Hillary Clinton, yet they serve in what they call the “purple zone,” have members with a mix of “blue” and “red” political sentiments.

One-quarter of these clergy said they preached on controversial issues “rarely” or “never,” with about half saying that they did so only a few times a year. Another quarter agreed that they did so frequently.

Challenging topics

Among the controversial issues most frequently preached on were race, poverty, hunger, and homelessness. Abortion, fossil fuels, a critique of capitalism, and LGBTQ issues were more often avoided in the pulpit.

The researchers find that the reasons why these clergy skirted controversial topics included:

• The view that the pulpit was not considered an appropriate place to approach these issues (23 percent).
• A concern about church divisions (20 percent).
• A fear of pushback by congregants (17 percent).
• The feeling that they were not equipped to deal with such issues (17 percent).

When they did preach on controversial issues, 37 percent heard reports of angry congregants, 32 percent received angry remarks, 21 percent heard of members quitting and 16 percent of members’ withdrawing their offerings to the church.

Just 5 percent heard of calls to resign, while 1 percent were fired.

Clergy from larger congregations were more likely to preach on more controversial issues.

United Methodist and Lutheran clergy also were more likely to preach on controversial issues, with those from American Baptist churches and even the very liberal United Church of Christ less likely to do so. Congregations in urban areas also fared better as far as clergy broaching controversial issues in their sermons, as did churches led by older men.

A more qualitative study that Schade and Thompson (with Katie Day of United Lutheran Seminary) conducted among 10 mainline congregations last fall may explain some of the attitudes driving purple churches.

The majority of clergy and lay leaders surveyed agreed that congregations should make an impact on society and discuss social issues. But almost 40 percent of respondents reported that congregants want to hear more about matters of faith.

The researchers’ conclusion: Congregations tended to be civically involved, though not necessarily activist.

A common concern

Mainline churches are not the only congregations occupying the purple zone.

In a separate study analyzing data from the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey, researcher Sean Bock of Harvard University found that liberals, by a wide margin, were most likely to experience conflict compared to other political orientations.

“Not only are they the most likely group to have already left their churches, but they make up the vast majority of those who remain in churches [for now] with which they disagree, as well,” he reported at the St. Louis conference.

As might be expected, evangelicals were unlikely to conflict with their churches on these issues.

Bock noted that liberal dissenters have not filtered into churches with more liberal views, remaining in their more conservative churches. But they do tend to lower their attendance rates.

He also was somewhat surprised to find that younger Americans and the highly educated were less likely to conflict with their churches. One reason for this pattern may be that these demographic groups have already disaffiliated.

Bock concluded that with evangelicals standing apart from other groups as the least conflicted groups, “traditional American religion may be increasingly represented by devout, intense religionists with more conservative attitudes, keeping the United States firmly as an outlier among fellow wealthy democracies, despite marked decline in its religious participation.”

Image by Duke Chapel, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Image by Maryland GovPics, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

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