The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
The Clergy: What Are They Good For?

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Christians are increasingly unlikely to think their clergy contribute to the well-being of society. That data point comes form a new Gallup poll on attitudes towards professions. The results contain some stark numbers for men and women of the cloth:

Just 37% of Americans surveyed think the clergy make a big contribution to society, about the same as in 2009. Regular churchgoers tend to be more positive about ministers, priests and other clergy members. But even among adults who say they attend religious services at least once a week, only about half (52%) rate clergy in general as contributing “a lot” to society, while 29% say the clergy make “some” contribution, and 11% say the clergy contribute “not very much” or “nothing at all.”

All Christian sub-groups think scientists contribute more to the well-being of society than clergy, and both Hispanic Catholics and African American Protestants are particularly unlikely to see much social value in the ministry.

These numbers point to one of the deep structural changes making institutional religion less plausible to today’s spiritual seekers. In ages past, the clergy were the most literate and educated people in their areas, as well as being skilled in both medicine and governance. Even as time went on and some of those skill-sets became more specialized, clergy still served a social and vocational role that exceed religious functions narrowly understood.

Most of this is gone now. The clergy are no longer the most educated people around, and their authority is no longer buttressed by earthly (and thus easily grasped) skills like medicine and law. In the Catholic Church especially, the declining number of priests means that the remaining ones have less time to invest in community functions. Under these circumstances, it’s hard to see what the clergy is for—what service they provide over and above the other resources out there.

There’s no easy answer to the puzzles presented to the church by these changing socio-economic conditions. The next generation of Christian leaders are going to have to find creative ways of addressing them if the American Christianity is going to grow and thrive.

[St. Patrick's Cathedral image courtesy of Shutterstock]

Published on July 18, 2013 2:00 pm
  • Corlyss

    A sideshow in the 80s and 90s was the roiling sex abuse scandals among televangelists and the Catholic Church. The latter continues to be a sucking chest wound on the Church and other pastoral professions. Especially as the scandals concern children, they represent a dark cloud over any men of faith who ask others to trust them with their spiritual wellbeing.

  • lukelea

    Future clergy might consider getting a superior education in history, literature and philosophy. The way things are going they would have a near monopoly on knowledge of these subjects, without which our culture and civilization can not long endure.

  • wigwag

    My guess is that we are just going through a phase. American piety has peaks and troughs. It’s in a trough now but sometime in the next few decades something will turn it around.

  • Anthony

    Key sentence: “The next generation of Christian leaders are going to have to find creative ways of addressing them if the American Christianity is going to grow and thrive.” Additionally, point about no longer (generally) being most literate as well as skilled is signal.

  • Fred

    I sincerely hope wigwag is right. And I agree with lukelea with one caveat. Where are they going to get the education in humanities? Our universities have just about politicized and theorized the humanities out of existence.

  • vepxistqaosani

    Perhaps it would help if the clergy espoused orthodox Christian theology. See Peter Berger’s article on the two fundamentalisms in the Episcopal Church.

    Between the mainline denominations preaching Progressivism and the fundamentalists and evangelicals preaching the “prosperity gospel,” there’s not a whole lot of Christianity out there.

    • Jim__L

      It’s there, if you know where to look.

      If there’s a stinging critique to be made of such ministers, it’s that they make themselves so hard to find.