Politics in the Parish

The Political Influence of Catholic Priests

Gregory Allen Smith

"This detailed study of Catholic priests is empirically rich and insightful. Smith illuminates the politics of the leadership of America's largest—and perhaps most politically significant—religious tradition."
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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.

Table of Contents


1. A Theory of Priestly Influence

2. An Initial Look at Priestly Influence

3. Priestly Politics in 2004

4. Priestly Politics Confirmed

5. The Influence of Priests on Parishioners' Politics in 2004


Appendix A: Pastor Interviews
Appendix B: Analysis of Bulletins
Appendix C: 2004 Survey of Priests
Appendix D: Background on 2004 Survey of Parishioners
Appendix E: 2004 Survey of Parishioners



"Smith's book is informative, well-researched, and readable. It should find its way into the libraries of all serious scholars of the role of religion in politics."—American Catholic Studies

"Drawing from recent scholarship on political communication, Gregory Allen Smith's analysis of 'priestly influence' substantially advances the discussion about the political influence of religious elites. Smith successfully shows that, even when Catholic clergy lack a direct impact on political behavior, they can and do have subtle effects on political attitudes among parishioners. Through theoretical insight and richness of detail, this book will undoubtedly generate further reflection on the nature and scope of clergy political witness at the local level."—Kevin R. den Dulk, professor of political science, Grand Valley State University

"This detailed study of Catholic priests is empirically rich and insightful. Smith illuminates the politics of the leadership of America's largest—and perhaps most politically significant—religious tradition."—Laura R. Olson, professor of political science, Clemson University


Supplemental Materials


Winner of the 2010 Religion and Politics Section Hubert Morken Award of the American Political Science Association

About the Author

Gregory Allen Smith is a research fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, where he contributes to the Forum's survey research efforts. In 2006 he earned the Aaron Wildavsky Award for the best dissertation in religion and politics, awarded by the Religion and Politics section of the American Political Science Association.

272 pp., 5.5 x 8.5

Mar 2008

272 pp., 5.5 x 8.5

ISBN: 978-1-58901-193-9
Mar 2008

272 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-58901-389-6
Mar 2008

Religion and Politics series
John C. Green, Ted G. Jelen, and Mark J. Rozell, series editors

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