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Parting Souls

Disagreement on the war illustrates the gap between America's left-leaning clergy and its right-leaning laity

May 11, 2003|Joel Kotkin and Karen Speicher | Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Davenport Institute for Public Policy. Karen Speicher is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church.

The war in Iraq exposed many continuing fissures in U.S. society, but none more evident than the divide between the clerical establishment and the laity. The gap presages more fragmentation in the structures of religious faith in this historically devout global power.

The schism is felt, and reflected upon, in churches and synagogues across the country. Typical is St. Andrew United Methodist Church, in a working-class neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. Pastor Robert Sholis embraced "the Gospel message of peace" and fervently opposed the war in Iraq. Many in his congregation, which includes migrants from Appalachia, firmly disagreed with him. The depth of the division in Sholis' church was all the more pointed because he is not a young, idealistic, pacifist pastor. The ministry is his second career, and he has spent many years of reflection on war and the Gospel. Yet, the image of Christ on the St. Andrew Web site during the war -- Jesus wrapped in an American flag -- is not the one held by Sholis.

The split at St. Andrew, and between pew and pulpit in general, reflects opposing conceptions of Christ. Clergy tend to embrace the forgiving, loving "God of Peace," but parishioners favor the stern notion of a "God of Justice." That difference in theology helps to explain why clergy and laity disagreed on the Iraq war.

Virtually the entire leadership of every mainstream Christian faith -- from the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ and the National Baptist Convention to the United Methodists, as well as the National Council of Churches -- adamantly opposed the war against Iraq from the outset. Like many on the secular left, religious leaders denounced the conflict as one of U.S. aggression and needless destruction, and likely to evolve into a long, bloody conflict.

In contrast, the people in the pews, for the most part, were among the strongest backers of President Bush's goal of ousting Saddam Hussein. According to a prewar poll conducted by the Pew Research Center and Forum on Religion and Public Life, more than 60% of mainline Protestants and Catholics favored attacking Iraq; greater than 75% of evangelical Protestants supported a military effort.

Significantly, this gap between the ecclesiastic establishment and the laity extends beyond the issues of war and peace to a wide range of social and political issues.

Wade Clark Roof, professor of religion and society at UC Santa Barbara, traces the divide to changes in ecclesiastical education and training that began in the 1960s. Since then, he contends, there has been an increasingly leftward, or "progressive," shift within the mainstream clergy on issues ranging from race relations and economic "justice" to homosexuality and women's rights. In that sense, Roof suggests, the Iraq war represented only the latest "milestone in a larger feud" between parishioners and clergy.

During the Vietnam era, Roof notes, church leaders were as divided as the general population on the war. Today, there is far more solidarity in the pulpit. As a result, the "gap between mainline religious beliefs and what the people actually think has grown worse," says Roof.

The Catholic Church's recent history illustrates one cause of the split. The principles of Vatican II stressed the importance of a progressive ecumenism over strict adherence to traditional doctrine. Although many individual Catholics opposed these changes, Vatican II principles have dominated the education of new priests since the 1970s.

These are precisely the people, says R. Scott Appleby, a historian of the American Catholic Church and professor of history at Notre Dame, who are in positions of power not only within the church but also in its key academic institutions. The intellectual takeover by progressives pushed clergy beliefs well to the left of churchgoers.

The sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, Appleby says, have widened the gap between clergy and laity in that priestly misconduct has raised such issues as homosexuality and corruption within the priesthood. Grass-roots groups such as the Voice of the Faithful, as well as such conservative Catholic intellectuals as Michael Novak, have gained stature and influence as a result.

More disturbing to liberal Catholics such as Appleby have been the inroads made by conservative evangelicals into such groups as Latinos, the main engine of church growth in many parts of the country. By 2010, a majority of American Catholics will be Latino, but their loyalty seems to be weakening, particularly in the second and third generations. An estimated 600,000 Latinos, according to Catholic sociologist Andrew Greeley, leave the church every year; he predicts that within a decade as many as half of all Latinos will be outside the Catholic fold.

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