Joe Carter takes closer look at that New York Times coverage of partisan pastors

Every now and then, GetReligion readers send us URLs pointing to commentary pieces -- weekend "think piece" type stuff -- with a recommendation that sounds something like this: "You guys ought to run this. It reads like it was written for GetReligion."

What they mean, of course, is that it is a piece of media criticism written about something that ran in the mainstream press, a piece noting what this or that news organization did really right or really wrong while covering a religion event or trend.

It's especially nice when people sent us something addressing a news piece that we sort of intended to get around to dealing with ourselves, but ran out of time because of all the other stuff various GetReligionistas wanted to write about. This is the kind of article that gets filed in a "GetReligion guilt folder" in someone's email program.

As you probably guessed, this happened the other day with a piece that ran at the Acton Institute "Powerblog" site with this headline: "Are pastors particularly partisan?" This short piece asked some interesting questions about a recent New York Times piece that ran with this interesting headline: "Your Rabbi? Probably a Democrat. Your Baptist Pastor? Probably a Republican. Your Priest? Who Knows."

In this case, when I looked at the byline on the Acton piece, it was easy to see why this item resembled a GetReligion piece. It was written by former GetReligionista Joe Carter, who wears various hats right now in cyberspace.

So, before we get to a chunk of Carter's work, let's look at the top of the Times piece:

America’s pastors -- the men and women a majority of Americans look to for help in finding meaning and purpose in their lives -- are even more politically divided than the rest of us, according to a new data set representing the largest compilation of American religious leaders ever assembled.
Like their congregants, religious leaders have sharply divided themselves along political lines. Leaders and congregants of Unitarian and African Methodist Episcopal churches are overwhelmingly Democratic, as are those of Reform and Conservative Jewish synagogues. Those of several Evangelical and Baptist churches are overwhelmingly Republican. If religious denominations were states, almost all of them would be considered “Safely Democratic” or “Safely Republican,” with relatively few swing states.
Yet pastors are even more politically divided than the congregants in their denomination: Leaders of more liberal denominations tend to be even more likely to be registered as Democrats, and those of more conservative denominations even more likely to be registered as Republicans.
“It's a reflection of the ongoing sorting we have in American life,” said Mark Chaves, a professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke University. “Why would we think that religion is immune to that?”

Now, you need to read all of Carter's piece, as well as the Times essay, to see what is going on here. So let's raise both of these articles to "think piece" status. Grab a glass with ice and your chosen beverage and check them out.

Here is a chunk of Carter's intro. First, he quotes a chunk of the abstract from the actual academic paper:

Pastors are important civic leaders within their churches and communities. Several studies have demonstrated that the cues pastors send from the pulpit affect congregants’ political attitudes. However, we know little about pastors’ own political worldviews, which will shape the content and ideology of the messages transmitted to congregants. In this paper, we employ a novel methodology to compile a database of over 130,000 American clergy across forty religious denominations. These data provide us with a sweeping view of the political attitudes of American clergy. Using CCES data, we compare pastors’ partisanship to congregants’ political affiliation and policy views. The results demonstrate that pastors’ denominational affiliation is much more informative of their partisanship than for congregants. These results provide a nuanced understanding of the relationship between clergy’s political orientations and those of the individuals they lead.

Carter then digs in for the long haul.

Are pastors more partisan? My initial intention was to evaluate that claim based on the evidence provided in the paper, “Partisan Pastor: The Politics of 130,000 American Religious Leaders.” Like many of you, I had noticed my friends on social media linking to reports about it in such outlets as The New York Times and The Atlantic.
After reading the paper, though, I came to the conclusion the data were insufficient to support the conclusion. How did such a paper get published? As it turns out, it wasn’t.
The paper has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed political science journal, and one of the authors lists it on their curriculum vitae under “Works In Progress & Under Review.”

What does that mean? Well, Carter argues that this means that -- at this point -- the "paper does not meet the standards worthy of publication."

There is no way to summarize Carter's specific criticisms of the paper and, thus, the Times report based on the paper. Like I said: Read both.

But this is where Carter ends up:

What reason did The New York Times have for reporting on an unpublished study? And why did they choose to do so a mere day after the unpublished paper was posted online (the paper is dated June 11)? Whatever the newspaper’s motives, they put their credibility behind the flawed study. Despite having never been published, the paper is likely to be cited for years to come as credible “evidence” for the conclusion that pastors are more partisan than their congregants.

After all, the information ran in the sacred pages of The New York Times.

Dig in, folks.

Please respect our Commenting Policy