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What do Religious Leaders really focus on?

In a Washington Post interview last week, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam claimed organized religion’s public agenda has “been entirely focused on issues of homosexuality and contraception and not at all focused on issues of poverty.” Putnam’s comments were blasted by several commentators, including the New York Times’s Ross Douthat, who noted religious groups spend far more on charity, schools and hospitals than pro-life causes or to oppose same-sex marriage.
Putnam’s research has been important in proving that religious individuals give more to charity , but Douthat further argued the atmosphere at church services and in statements of leaders is not obsessed with homosexuality and abortion. Beyond anecdotal claims, how much do churchgoers hear about poverty at worship services compared with hot-button social issues?
Fortunately, the answer is easily at hand, and Douthat’s observation is accurate. Just before the 2012 presidential election, a Pew Research Center survey asked regular worship attendees what issues they have heard their clergy talk about recently. Roughly 3 in 4 said their clergy spoke about hunger and poverty (74 percent), while fewer than 4 in 10 heard about abortion (37 percent) or homosexuality (33 percent).
A breakdown of the data by religious groups shows that poverty dominates discussion even at churches with strong stances on abortion and homosexuality. Abortion comes close to rivaling poverty among Catholics: 62 percent of Catholics reported hearing about abortion in the weeks before the presidential election, though a still larger 82 percent said they heard about poverty. Among white evangelical Protestants who largely oppose same-sex marriage, far more said clergy spoke about hunger and poverty than homosexuality.
One caveat on these data is warranted. Talking about “hunger and poverty” is not identical to taking action on rising income inequality and the impact it has on the poor, which is the focus of Putnam’s recent book, “Our Kids.”
Much the same, religious groups may emphasize somewhat different themes in weekly services (such as raising charitable contributions) than when attempting to impact policy or influence voters. While Catholics attending Mass ahead of the 2012 election reported hearing more about poverty than abortion, the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” bulletin places heavy emphasis on the former. The publication mentions the importance of a living wage, but also explains that abortion is an evil that “may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.”
Religious groups are clearly active in discussing poverty at services, providing for the poor and taking stances on social justice. It’s an open question how much religious groups will weigh in and prioritize income inequality heading into the 2016 presidential cycle.