Mar 7, 2012

Are Dutch Calvinists clergy disengaging from politics?

A fact that makes no sense to me: between 1989 and 2001, support for political activism declined among the clergy of the Christian Reformed Church and Reformed Church in America.

This from Divided by a Common Heritage, by Corwin Smidt, Donald Luidens, James Penning and Roberg Nemeth, a quantitative, sociological study of the two major Dutch Calvinist denominations in America at the beginning of the 21st century.

They say, specifically, that among the CRC clergy, support for national organizations promoting political beliefs dropped from 75 percent to 55 percent. Among the RCA, from 62 to 45.

Belief it's a good thing to "commit civil disobedience to protest some evil" dropped from 52 percent for the CRC in 1989 to 26 percent in 2001. That's by half. Among the RCA clergy, 54 percent supported the idea of civil disobedience in '89, but only 22 percent supported it in '01. That's more than half.

The numbers continue like this.

A willingness to publicly support a candidate (not from the pulpit) dropped by 24 points for the CRC and 24 points for the RCA; willingness to take a stand on a political issue from the pulpit dropped 18 points for the CRC in those 12 years, and 16 for the RCA; even willingness to organize a study group in church to discuss public affairs declined a bit -- 7 percent for the CRC, 15 for the RCA.

The only measure of political activism that increased for the clergy of the two major Dutch Calvinist churches in America was their willingness to run for public office: This increased for the CRC and the RCA by 3 percent each.

But why?

The numbers seem pretty solid. The survey looks good. But this totally doesn't fit any narrative I know of the politicization of conservative Christians in the U.S. I can't think of any big dramatic difference between the politics and social situation in '89 and '01 that would explain the difference. George H.W. Bush is president in the earlier survey, George W. in the latter. Abortion is an issue in both. The culture war raged and rages on.

Things would be clearer with more data points -- is this a trend that's continued? was it a momentary slackening of political activism? was '89 an oddly political year for the Dutch? are there serious fluctuations in these numbers? -- but the numbers seem significant enough to raise a couple of questions.

The authors don't do much interpretation, as that's beyond the scope of their project, except to suggest the change has to do with a generational shift among the clergy.

That's certainly plausible. Is that enough to explain it, though? Post-boomer pastors are wary of getting sucked into American politics? Do the numbers of new clergy support that? How are the younger ministers situated theologically, I wonder, and how do they talk about social issues with their parishioners, and is this just a reaction to excess or something of a complete re-alignment?

If that's the case, and if that's true for other Protestant denominations as well, than we're in for a pretty significant shift in American politics, I would think.

Maybe there are other, better explanations of this data, though?