U.S. Churches' Clergy-Laity split on War
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Tue Mar 18 22:19:35 EST 2003
U.S. Churches' Clergy-Laity Split on War
By RICHARD N. OSTLING
The nation's ranking Christian clergy have formed their strongest anti-war
alliance in at least a generation, but the people in the pews don't
necessarily agree with their leaders.
There is opposition to the war among leaders of the Roman Catholic
hierarchy, almost all the leaders of white, mainline Protestant
denominations, and the heads of black Protestant groups.
But with war imminent, polls indicate a majority of the faithful
support President Bush.
In the past, says historian Martin E. Marty, clergy successfully
prodded parishioners' opinions on major social issues like alcohol
prohibition and civil rights. But when it comes to war, lay Christians
have gone along with the prevailing public sentiment, regardless of
what they hear in church.
"The mainstream Protestant laity has been roughly where the public is
as long as I've known them," said Marty, 75, a former University of
Chicago professor regarded as the dean of American church historians.
"Barring some special factor, the laity is indistinguishable from the
The Gallup Poll said in early March that 63 percent of those who said
they attend church almost weekly favored a U.S. military invasion to
end Saddam Hussein's rule, compared with 59 percent of the general
public in the survey. The margin of error was 3 percentage points. A
Pew Research Center poll question last month produced similar results.
Clergy opposition to the Vietnam War eventually grew even more intense
than the current anti-war push - but it developed gradually after the
conflict began, Marty says.
The clergy have not been so visibly opposed to the outbreak of
hostilities since the pre-Pearl Harbor days of 1941, he says.
"Religious leaders are called to be leaders," said the Rev. Wesley
Granberg-Michaelson, the anti-war chief executive of the Reformed
Church in America. "If they know how to lead well, people will be
influenced - not all, but certainly some."
The Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of
Churches and a peace activist, said religious leaders must say what
they believe is right - even if some church members disagree.
"It's interesting to see how far apart we are from some of the laity,"
said Edgar, a clergyman in President Bush's United Methodist Church.
"But that's not unlike the prophets and apostles of the Old and New
Testaments" who were rejected by their own people.
In mainline Protestant denominations, the clergy-laity political divide
first won wide notice in the late 1960s. By 1972, Dean Kelley's book
"Why Conservative Churches Are Growing" warned that churches decline
when they overemphasize politics and neglect spiritual substance.
Catholic clergy - sensitive to criticism that the faithful might follow
the pope rather than the president - once sought to prove their
patriotism and rarely questioned national policy.
But the U.S. bishops' made a statement against Vietnam policy in 1971,
and that was a turning point. Since then, the hierarchy has made many
pronouncements on foreign and domestic policy.
Judging from past conflicts, however, the current war debate won't be a
make-or-break issue that will drive hawkish Christians from their
denomination. Most simply accept they have a difference of opinion with
their spiritual leaders.
Episcopalian Jim Oakes, a medical technology consultant in Washington,
D.C., with a son in the Marine Corps, says his church's presiding
bishop, Frank Griswold, can believe whatever he likes about war "as a
But "I strongly object to his claiming to represent the body of the
Episcopal Church, because he doesn't," Oakes said. "It's similar to a
rock star making pronouncements on world peace. It's very interesting
but what do they know?"
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