Black-and-white footage of a kamikaze pilot approaching a U.S. battleship. Iconic roles — from Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley in “Going My Way” to Clifton Davis as the Rev. Rueben Gregory in the TV show “Amen” — of male pastors leading their flocks.
The images take hold in American culture, and are difficult to dislodge. Even if the truth has always been more complex.
Two studies presented at sociology meetings in Atlanta earlier this month — one exploring American Christian and Japanese Buddhist attitudes toward “honorable suicide“ and a second looking at the progress of clergywomen — offer interesting glimpses into the changing expressions of faith in history.
The research indicates that the steps forward women clergy have made in obtaining more desirable pulpits are balanced by continuing concerns faced by many of their colleagues stuck under a stained-glass ceiling.
The other study was more surprising. Even to its principal investigator.
The research showed that Christian clergy today were much more likely than Buddhist clergy to approve of “honorable suicide.”
Kamikaze pilots and soldiers on islands surrounding Japan who chose death over surrender when further fighting was futile were honored by much of the Japanese public during the Second World War. But it was this willingness to sacrifice life in suicide missions that played a major role in the U.S. decision to use nuclear weapons. In the face of such resistance, ending the war by conventional means would have resulted in a much greater loss of life, U.S. leaders concluded.
Times have changed.
Sociologist Tatsushi Horono of Austin Peay State University sent a total of 800 mail surveys to Japanese Buddhist clergy in suburban Tokyo and Christian clergy in suburban New York for his study: “Can ‘honorable suicide’ as part of a military or a rescue mission be justified from a religious standpoint?”
Seventy-nine U.S. clergy and 78 Japanese clergy responded.
Horono told the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion that his hypothesis was that Buddhist clergy would be more accepting of honorable suicide because they would be less likely to view it as a sin. The suicide rate in Japan is about twice as high as the rate in the U.S.
However, only 3 of the 78 Japanese Buddhist clergy surveyed said suicide can be justified; by contrast, 14 of 79 American Christian clergy said choosing one’s own death to serve others could be justified.
In longer responses, more than 30 Japanese Buddhist clergy said life is a gift from Buddha, and individuals do not have the right to end it. Some clergy also said it is arrogant and an escape from the “duty of life” to commit suicide.
American clergy who approved of honorable suicide said taking one’s own life is acceptable if it is done trying to save others, Horono reported. Some U.S. clergy referred to the passage in the Gospel of John: “The greatest love you can have for your friends is to give your life for them.”
Among other interesting findings:
· Two-thirds of Christian respondents said suicide is a sin, compared to 55 percent of Japanese Buddhist clergy who held that view.
· Ninety percent of U.S. Christian respondents said they had taken suicide prevention training, and all said they had an obligation to help people who are thinking about suicide.
· Just 42 percent of Japanese Buddhist clergy reported receiving such training, and 20 percent said they did not have a responsibility to help people contemplating ending their lives.
Search the ARDA’s Data Archive for Survey Questions on Suicide
One step forward
There is a reason the popular Denzel Washington Christmas film was called “The Preacher’s Wife.” It is what most Americans expect.
Women are increasingly getting more attractive pulpit positions with gender-balanced congregations. But it is still hard for women to break into head pastor positions, particularly if that involves supervising other staff, according to researcher Catherine Hoegeman of the University of Arizona.
At a religion roundtable at he American Sociological Association meeting, Hoegeman presented the early findings of her study: “Above the Stained-Glass Ceiling: The Job Status of Women Head Clergy in U.S. Religious Congregations.” She used data from the 1998 and 2006-2007 National Congregations Study, excluding denominations such as the Catholic Church that do not ordain women. The study is based on 710 congregations in 1998 and 879 cases in 2006-2007.
The good news for women clergy: Females are getting desirable pulpits.
In the 1998 cases, no woman led a megachurch. In 2006-2007, three women led churches with more than 1,000 members. In 1998, congregations led by women had a higher percentage of female members, fewer affluent members and were less likely to be in the suburbs. That was no longer the case in 2006-2007, with women now being more likely than men to lead congregations with higher-educated members.
But while some women are getting better jobs, overall progress in women becoming pastors has stalled. In 1998, 14 percent of the congregations in the study had a woman head clergy. Ten percent reported a woman pastor in 2006-2007.
The difference is particularly striking in congregations where the head pastor supervises others. Women are 50 percent less likely than men to be pastors in such churches, Hoegeman reported.
In another shift indicating the spread of the culture wars, women pastors were more concentrated in liberally- oriented congregations in the 2006-2007 survey. It mattered less whether they were a Presbyterian or a United Methodist.
“In 1998, the denominational distinctions seemed to matter,” she said in an interview. By 2006-2007, “theological orientation trumped religious tradition.”
Explore the National Congregations Study’s Question on the Gender of Ministers
Subscribe to Ahead of the Trend via email, RSS or social media.