Politics and Polarization in Mainline Protestant Congregations (2022-2023)

In recent decades there has been increasing polarization within churches along political lines. Most existing research on the role of religious organizations in politics, however, focuses on either conservative or liberal Protestants. Less attention is given to Mainline congregations and clergy.

Recent data from the National Survey of Religious Leaders shows that while conservative Protestant congregations are highly polarized (80% of members and clergy lean Republican), Mainline Protestants are split along partisan lines and Mainline clergy are more liberal than their congregations. Research with the United Methodist clergy and Duke Divinity students suggests that political tensions and polarization are salient issues for Mainline religious leaders. 

This project team explored the social, political and health impacts of political polarization in Mainline clergy and congregations with the ultimate aim of developing recommendations to clergy for how to facilitate civil discourse and bridge political difference.

The project was divided into three subteams, each of which used a different data source and pursued a different methodological approach to examine how clergy think about the relationship between politics and religion, the extent to which clergy discuss salient political and social issues from the pulpit, and the impact polarization and political conflict are having on clergy well-being.

  1. Interview Analysis: Focusing on interviews from 34 United Methodist pastors in North Carolina, this subteam investigated whether and how pastors incorporate political speech and action into their ministry, how they handle political conflicts in their congregations and communities and how they connect the political and the theological. 
  2. Sermon Analysis: On this subteam, students used quantitative text data analysis methods to explore whether and how political polarization is represented in United Methodist Sunday sermons, and how pastors navigate political tension when contentious social and political issues become salient. Team members developed individual and joint research questions, identified variables and created word sets that correspond to salient issues and political events.
  3. Survey and Network Analysis: This subteam studied pastors’ experience of political polarization in congregations, and to whom they turn for social support, using a panel survey of pastors working in North Carolina. Using R programming and other data analysis skills, students matched and merged datasets from different sources to map patterns in clergy experience. 


Summer 2022 – Summer 2023

Team Outputs

How Clergy Cope With Political Division (2023 Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Digital Showcase)

Politics and Polarization in Mainline Protestant Congregations (poster by Erin Johnston, Chris Johnston, David Eagle, Jen Headley, Anna Holleman, Megan Forbes, Sejal Mayer-Patel, Millie Caughey, Gabriel Varela, Dav King, Oliver Hess, Trent Ollerenshaw, James Liao, Haley Toresdahl, Jackie Irvin and Tahmara Ouedrago, presented at Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Showcase, Duke University, April 19, 2023)

Christopher Johnston. Politics and Polarization in the Methodist Church: A Text Analysis of Sermons ($14,116 grant awarded from Social Science Research Council, 2023)

This Team in the News

Meet the Winners of the 2023 Bass Connections Student Research Awards

Democracy in America: An Interdisciplinary Exploration of How To Strengthen Democracy


Team Leaders

  • David Eagle, Duke Global Health Institute
  • Christopher Johnston, Arts & Sciences-Political Science
  • Erin Johnston, Arts & Sciences-Sociology

/graduate Team Members

  • Megan Forbes, Masters of Public Policy
  • Gabriel Varela, Sociology-PHD, Sociology-AM
  • Haley Toresdahl, Masters of Public Policy
  • Trent Ollerenshaw, Political Science-AM, Political Science-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Jacqueline Irvin, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • David King, IDM Data Science
  • Shuaichen Liao, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Rongfan Liu, DKU Interdisciplinary Studies (BS)
  • Sejal Mayer-Patel, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Oliver Hess, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Tahmara Ouedraogo, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Isadora Toledo, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Millicent Caughey, Religion (AB)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Anna Holleman, Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research
  • Brett McCarty, Population Health Sciences and Duke Divinity School
  • Jerusha Neal, Divinity School
  • David Siegel, Arts & Sciences-Political Science
  • Jennifer Headley, Duke Global Health Institute