Many women of faith struggle to gain access to leadership roles in their congregations ― even when they come from traditions that allow women’s ordination. Religious women across the globe are pushing back on dated rules and practices by seeking out their own avenues of leadership.
But U.S. houses of worship, on the whole, reflect a significant gender disparity.
A new report by Eitan D. Hersh, a political science professor at Yale University, and Harvard University doctoral candidate Gabrielle Malina examines the political affiliations of 130,000 Christian and Jewish leaders in the U.S. and how those affiliations affect their congregations.
The researchers found that these religious leaders ― who represent roughly two-thirds of all faith congregations in the country ― are more politically divided than the rest of the American public. And their politics have a significant effect on gender representation in their houses of worship.
Hersh and Malina conducted their research in the spring and summer of 2016 and compiled the report using information from 40 religious denominations combined with available party affiliation data.
The survey turned up a list of 186,000 Christian and Jewish leaders, 130,000 of whom the researchers were able to find in public voter registration records.
Women in the United States are much more likely than men to say religion is “very important” in their lives. They’re also more likely to say they pray daily and attend weekly religious services, according to Pew Research Center. But when it comes to leadership, American congregations are still largely run by men.
Among the leaders included in Hersh and Malina’s report, nearly 85 percent were men.
Denominations that tend to have more Republican-affiliated leaders ― including Southern, Independent and Fundamentalist Baptists, The Evangelical Church and the Wisconsin Lutheran Synod ― are almost entirely staffed by male pastors.
Those with the most Democratic-affiliated leaders ― including Unitarian Universalists (a non-creedal faith with Christian roots), Reform Judaism and the United Church of Christ ― are headed by 20 to 60 percent female leaders. Hersh and Malina found that 45 percent of Reform Jewish rabbis and 57 percent of Unitarian ministers were listed as female.
Congregations led by more Democratic-leaning leaders also tend to be more in favor of same-sex marriage and access to abortion.
Political affiliations among religious leaders have come into the spotlight in recent months with President Donald Trump’s February pledge to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a 50-year-old tax law that prohibits churches and other tax-exempt organizations from participating in political campaigns.
Trump signed an executive order on religious liberty in May, which fell short of his original vow and instead directed the Internal Revenue Service to simply “exercise maximum enforcement discretion to alleviate the burden of the Johnson Amendment.”
Repealing the amendment isn’t a popular option among Americans. Nearly half of Americans say they want houses of worship to address social and political topics, according to Pew, but fewer than a third say religious leaders should be able to endorse candidates.
That roughly aligns with what’s already in practice in American congregations. In a survey conducted during the 2016 presidential campaign, Pew found that 64 percent of recent churchgoers heard their faith leaders discussing political issues, including religious liberty and immigration. But just 14 percent reported hearing clergy speak directly in support of or against a presidential candidate.
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