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Which Churches Are the Most Activist of All? New Study Findings May Surprise You

06/17/2014 02:45 pm ET | Updated Aug 17, 2014

The nation's largest religious body is also by far the most likely to have its congregations take to the streets in public demonstrations or lobby the halls of power on moral issues, a new study finds.

And the Catholic Church's prominent role on a broad range of issues from abortion to immigration reform may become even more pronounced as U.S. officials aim to follow the lead of Pope Francis in giving greater attention to issues such as economic inequality.

Look past the cultural stereotypes that tend to primarily associate religious activism with the black church, or the media attention paid to pitched battles among liberal and conservative Protestants.

When religious groups move from the noise of denominational battles to enlisting congregational foot soldiers for moral agendas, no group is more successful than the Catholic Church, the 2012 National Congregations Study finds.

A quarter of Catholic congregations reported that they had lobbied officials in the last 12 months, and more than half of Catholic congregations said they had organized or participated in a demonstration or march on a public issue or policy.

In contrast, just 10 percent of Protestant congregations reported taking either action, the study found.

And while Catholics were most active on the abortion issue, they also were more likely than other groups to lobby and demonstrate on a wide range of issues, from combating poverty to advocating for immigration reform.

The National Congregations Study, which also was conducted in 1998 and 2006-2007 among a total of 2,740 congregations, gathered information from a nationally representative sample of 1,331 congregations for the 2012 study.

There has been a slight increase over the three waves of the National Congregations Study in the percentage of churches engaging in some form of lobbying or marches or demonstrations on public policy issues. The percentage of U.S. congregations taking such active roles in the public square rose from 11 percent in 1998 to 13 percent in 2006-2007 to 15 percent in 2012.

But that still means less than one in six congregations took such actions.

What stands out, however, is that the people in the pews in the 67 million-member Catholic Church in the United States are not only much more likely to be on the front lines of public policy debates, but they are leaders across a broad spectrum of issues.

Consider these findings from the 2012 congregations study on churches in the last 12 months that reported marching, demonstrating or lobbying on key issues:

Poverty: Thirty-seven percent of congregations who marched, demonstrated or lobbied did so addressing concerns of the poor. Forty-three percent of activist Catholic and white mainline Protestant congregations brought poverty to the forefront, as did 23 percent of activist black Protestant churches.
Abortion: A third of activist congregations lifted up the abortion issue. Nearly nine in 10 Catholic congregations who reported some form of activism addressed abortion, as did 58 percent of activist white conservative Protestant churches.
Same-sex marriage: Some three in 10 activist churches entered the public-policy debate on same-sex marriages. This included 28 percent of Catholic churches, 26 percent of white mainline Protestant churches and 17 percent of white conservative Protestant churches who reported marching, demonstrating or lobbying in the last year.
Immigration reform: The recent primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by a Tea Party candidate showed the volatility of the issue of immigration reform. And relatively few congregations are willing to take to the streets over the rights of immigrants, with only 13 percent of activist churches focusing on this issue. Twenty-eight percent of activist Catholic churches addressed this issue, followed by 15 percent of white mainline Protestant congregations.

Pope Francis and U.S. Catholic leaders have made it clear abortion will remain a fundamental concern of a church that declares in its catechism that, "God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end."

However, the new pontiff in both his lifestyle and his teachings has also expressed solidarity with the poor. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, the pope said, "Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills."

And U.S. Catholic leaders appeared to have taken notice. In the recent spring meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, some church leaders discussed giving greater emphasis to issues such as poverty and economic justice in their next guide for Catholic voters on moral issues.

Still, there are no signs in the latest wave of the congregations study predicting any significant increase in religious congregations marching or demonstrating outside their sanctuaries on key issues.

Overall, in terms of public policy activism, "The signal is basically stability," said Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves, the study director.

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.