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Politics in the Parish

The Political Influence of Catholic Priests

Gregory Allen Smith

Publication Year: 2008

For well over a century the Catholic Church has articulated clear positions on many issues of public concern, particularly economics, capital punishment, foreign affairs, sexual morality, and abortion. Yet the fact that some of the Church's positions do not mesh well with the platforms of either of the two major political parties in the U.S. may make it difficult for Americans to look to Catholic doctrine for political guidance. Scholars of religion and politics have long recognized the potential for clergy to play an important role in shaping the voting decisions and political attitudes of their congregations, yet these assumptions of political influence have gone largely untested and undemonstrated. Politics in the Parish is the first empirical examination of the role Catholic clergy play in shaping the political views of their congregations. Gregory Allen Smith draws from recent scholarship on political communication, and the comprehensive Notre Dame Study of Parish Life, as well as case studies he conducted in nine parishes in the mid-Atlantic region, to investigate the extent to which and the circumstances under which Catholic priests are influential in shaping the politics of their parishioners. Smith is able to verify that clergy do exercise political influence, but he makes clear that such influence is likely to be nuanced, limited in magnitude, and exercised indirectly by shaping parishioner religious attitudes that in turn affect political behavior. He shows that the messages that priests deliver vary widely, even radically, from parish to parish and priest to priest. Consequently, he warns that scholars should exercise caution when making any global assumptions about the political influence that Catholic clergy affect upon their congregations.

Published by: Georgetown University Press

Series: Religion and Politics series


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List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xii

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pp. 1-12

Religion has always played an important role in American politics. Many of the earliest European settlers in the New World were motivated to cross the Atlantic by religious concerns, and the political institutions they established were influenced by their moral and religious convictions. The centrality of religion in American life continued through the development of the colonies and the establishment of the United States as an independent nation.

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chapter one: A Theory of Priestly Influence

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pp. 13-40

It is plausible to suspect that Catholic clergy may be important sources of political influence for American Catholics, but there are also reasons to think that the ability of clergy to wield political influence may be sharply limited. It is not the case, for instance, that messages from elites are always received and correctly perceived by those exposed to them. Nor is the importance of religion in American politics self-evident.

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chapter two: An Initial Look at Priestly Influence

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pp. 41-78

Even a cursory investigation of the extent to which Catholic priests possess the ability to influence the political attitudes of their parishioners requires two separate types of information. First, one must know something of the political attitudes of (at least a sample of) Catholic parishioners; second, one must know something about the political beliefs of the priests assigned to the parishes to which those parishioners belong. Clearly, this is a high threshold, as most surveys, even those dealing explicitly with the religious dimensions of politics, do not meet these criteria.

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chapter three: Priestly Politics in 2004

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pp. 79-113

The results presented and discussed in the previous chapter are consistent with what one would expect to find if clergy influence over parishioners’ political attitudes were in fact taking place. That said, the evidence presented to this point is, for two reasons, insufficient for declaring conclusively that clergy play the politically important role hypothesized by so many scholars of religion and politics. First, the results presented in chapter 2, though suggestive, are also in some instances counterintuitive and confusing.

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chapter four: Priestly Politics Confirmed

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pp. 114-137

Chapter 3 concluded with a categorization of the preaching characteristics of the pastors at each of the nine parishes participating in this project. There is no reason to suspect that any of the pastors I spoke with were less than forthright in their descriptions of the way they address various sociopolitical topics.

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chapter five: The Influence of Priests on Parishioners’ Politics in 2004

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pp. 138-180

The preceding chapters demonstrate conclusively that the political messages that Catholic parishioners hear from their parish priests vary dramatically depending on where they attend Church. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not (and in what ways) these varying messages have any influence on the political behavior or attitudes of parishioners.

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pp. 181-196

The question of the extent to which American clergy wield significant political influence is an important one. Burgeoning research in the subfield of religion and politics consistently demonstrates that religious factors play an important role in shaping the way Americans approach politics, and research in political communications makes clear that clergy represent an entirely plausible source of influence.

Appendix A: Pastor Interviews

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pp. 197-200

Appendix B: Analysis of Bulletins

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pp. 201-211

Appendix C: 2004 Survey of Priests

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pp. 212-221

Appendix D: Background on 2004 Survey of Parishioners

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pp. 222-224

Appendix E: 2004 Survey of Parishioners

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pp. 225-238


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pp. 239-248


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pp. 249-260

E-ISBN-13: 9781589013896
E-ISBN-10: 1589013891
Print-ISBN-13: 9781589011939
Print-ISBN-10: 1589011937

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Religion and Politics series
Series Editor Byline: John C. Green, Ted G. Jelen, and Mark J. Rozell, series editors See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 463189527
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Politics in the Parish

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Priests -- Political activity -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Catholic Church -- Political activity -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Christianity and politics -- United States.
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