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Church-state separation has gone too far, 78% of Protestant clergy say

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)—More than three-fourths of Protestant clergy believe the separation of church and state in the United States has gone too far, according to research released by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Ellison Research, a full-service marketing research firm in Phoenix which conducted the research for the July/August issue of LifeWay’s Facts & Trends magazine, reported that 78 percent of Protestant clergy say “the separation of church and state in the U.S. has gone too far, or in ways it was never intended to go” best reflects their personal position.

Ellison described the research as reflecting a representative sample of 700 senior pastors of Protestant churches throughout the United States.

Just 8 percent of all agree with the statement “the separation of church and state in the U.S. has not gone far enough; more is needed,” Ellison reported, while 13 percent believe “the current separation of church and state in the U.S. is right about where it should be.”

Among the larger denominational groups in the study, Southern Baptist ministers are particularly likely to view the separation of church and state as having gone too far –- by a 93 percent majority.

Pentecostal and charismatic pastors also are united in this belief (92%), while Methodist ministers (70%) and Lutheran pastors (66%) also generally share this position.

The study gave clergy an opportunity to weigh in on a number of specific church-state issues.

Ninety-five percent of all clergy believe the words “under God” should continue to be included in the Pledge of Allegiance. Even among ministers from denominations that are members of the National Council of Churches, which represents mainline Protestant denominations and has a reputation for being a more liberal body of churches, 85 percent of clergy believe “under God” should stay in the pledge.

On one of the most controversial issues in recent years — displaying the Ten Commandments in a courthouse — 86 percent of Protestant ministers say such displays should be allowed.

Virtually all clergy from the more conservative National Association of Evangelicals concur (95 percent), but the issue is more divisive within the NCC, where 65 percent believe such displays should be allowed and 35 percent say they should not be.

Among individual denominations there is widespread support for Ten Commandments displays: 98 percent among Pentecostal/charismatic churches, 96 percent among Southern Baptists, 96 percent among other Baptist groups, 76 percent among Methodists, 66 percent among Lutherans and 80 percent among all other denominations combined.

Seventy-nine percent of ministers also believe displaying a Christmas nativity scene on government property should be allowed under the separation of church and state. Again, NAE members are far more united (93 percent) than are members of the NCC (59 percent).

At the same time, 71 percent of ministers feel that displaying a Jewish menorah on government property during Hanukkah should be permissible, including 90 percent from the NAE but only 54% from the NCC. There is considerable diversity of thought among major denominational groups. Ninety-one percent of Pentecostal/charismatic ministers say a Jewish menorah should be permissible, along with 78 percent of Southern Baptists and 75 percent of other Baptists, but only 64 percent of Methodists and 52 percent of Lutherans, along with 64 percent of all other denominations combined.

Ministers remain sharply divided on the overall issue of religious displays on government property. The most common perspective, held by 37 percent of all Protestant ministers, is that “Christian displays should be allowed on government property, but not those of any other religion.” This stance is particularly common among pastors in small churches (under 100 people in attendance), pastors under 45 years of age, those in the South and those from denominations with membership in the NAE. Denominationally, Southern Baptists, other Baptists and Pentecostal/charismatic ministers are the ones most likely to hold this opinion.

Meanwhile, 30 percent of all ministers take the position that “religious displays from major world religions (such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam) should be allowed on government property,” a belief particularly common among pastors in churches with 200 or more people.

Also fairly common is the perspective that “no religious displays of any kind should be allowed on government property,” held by 22 percent of ministers. Members of the NCC are particularly likely to believe this, which makes it no surprise that Methodists and Lutherans also are likely to hold this opinion.

The least common perspective –- held by 12 percent of the clergy — is that “religious displays from any religion (whether it’s Christianity, Hare Krishna, Wicca or anything else) should be allowed on government property.” This belief is particularly common in the Midwest and the West and among ministers who are 60 and older.

The motto “In God We Trust” should remain on U.S. currency, according to 96 percent of the clergy, with the vast majority from both the NAE and NCC supporting retention of the motto.

And 90 percent of clergy believe religious groups should be allowed to use government property for meetings if non-religious groups can do so. The perspective is held by 95 percent of clergy from NAE-member denominations and 81 percent from NCC-member denominations.

Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research, said the study found that while clergy clearly feel that there is too much separation of church and state in the country today, there is no common belief on just what the application should be.

“The vast majority want general expressions of belief to remain in place, such as ‘In God We Trust’ on currency or ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance,” Sellers said. “They also clearly demand parity for religious groups in public life, such as allowing a church group to use the city hall for a meeting if the garden club is given the same privilege. Those beliefs are pervasive, whether the minister is young or old, liberal or conservative, and regardless of denomination — we’ve seen more agreement on this than on just about any other issue we’ve studied with ministers.”

Sellers noted that the “divisive issue” is “how this parity applies to individual religious groups. There is a lot of disagreement about who should be allowed a religious display on government property, for instance. Pastors find it easy to agree on basic beliefs related to church and state, but much harder to agree on specific application of those beliefs.”

Ellison Research said its sample of 700 Protestant ministers included only those who are actively leading churches and is accurate to within plus or minus 3.6 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level with a 50 percent response distribution. The study was conducted in all 50 states, using a representative sample of pastors from all Protestant denominations. Ellison said the respondents’ geography, church size and denomination were tracked to ensure appropriate representation and accuracy.

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