Do Liberals Fail the Churches?

May 18, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ross Douthat calls out liberals who think, and declare, that churches today are more focused on “culture war” issues like abortion and homosexuality than on poverty.       

Ridiculous, says Douthat.  Religious organizations spend only “a few hundred million dollars” on pro-life causes and “traditional marriage” but tens of billions on charities, schools, and hospitals.  (His column “Do Churches Fail the Poor?” is here.)

Those numbers shouldn’t be surprising, especially since much of religion’s spending goes to the developing world while the culture war is being fought almost entirely within the US. Unfortunately, Douthat and his sources lump all spending together rather than separating domestic US budgets from those going to the developing world.  But even in the US and other wealthy countries, abortion and gay marriage are largely legislative and legal matters. Building schools and hospitals and then keeping them running – that takes real money.

Why then do liberals get this impression about the priorities of religious organizations? Douthat blames the media. He doesn’t do a full O’Reilly and accuse the media (liberal, it goes without saying) and others of ganging up in a war on religion, but that’s the subtext.*

Anyone who tells you that America’s pastors are obsessed with homosexuality or abortion only hears them through a media filter. You can attend Masses or megachurches for months without having those issues intrude.

Actually, the media do not report on the sermons and homilies of local clergy at all, whether they are urging their flocks to live good lives, become wealthy, help the needy, or oppose gay marriage. Nor is there a data base of these Sunday texts, so we don’t know precisely how much American chuchgoers are hearing about any of these topics. Only a handful of clergy get media coverage, and that coverage focuses on their pronouncements about controversial issues.  As Douthat says, liberals are probably reacting to “religious leaders who make opposition to abortion more of a political priority than publicly-funded antipoverty efforts.” 

Of his own Catholic church, Douthat adds, “You can bore yourself to tears reading denominational statements and bishops’ documents (true long before Pope Francis) with a similar result.” Maybe he has done this reading, and maybe he does think that his Church does not let “those issues intrude.” Or as he puts it, “The belief that organized religion is organized around culture war is largely a conceit of the irreligious.”

But here, thanks to the centralized and hierarchical structure of the Church, we can get data that might reveal what the Church is worried about. As Douthat implies, the previous pope (Benedict XVI, the former Joseph Ratzinger), was more concerned about culture-war issues than is the current pope. 

How concerned? I went to Lexis-Nexis. I figured that papal pronouncements on these issues would be issued in masses, in official statements, and in addresses.  For each of those three terms, I searched for “Pope Benedict” with four “culture-war” terms (Abortion, Homosexuality, Condom, and Birth control) and Poverty.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Abortion was the big winner.  Poverty was referred to in more articles than were the other individual culture-war terms.  But if those terms are combined into a single bar, its clear that poverty as a papal concern is dwarfed by the attention to these other issues. The graph below shows the data for “mass.”

This is not the best data. It might reflect the concerns of the press more than those of the Church. Also, some of those Lexis-Nexis articles are not direct hits. They might reference an “address” or “statement” by someone else. But there’s no reason to think that these off-target citations are skewed towards Abortion and away from Poverty.
.So it’s completely understandable that liberals, and perhaps non-liberals as well, have the impression that Big Religion has a big concern with matters of sex and reproduction.

* Perhaps not subtext. Douthat decries the sins of  “the Obama White House, with its . . . attempts to strong-arm religious nonprofits.”


Mike said...

Dr. Livingston,

I believe that your numbers are skewed for two reasons:

1. The Catholic church frequently mentions 'the poor' in homilies and encyclicals, usually describing individuals that the church connects with to provide some type of spiritual or physical support. While 'the poor' typically live in 'poverty', I believe the Church's language reveals a bias towards dealing with the problem on an individual vice societal level.

2. You noted that the search returns might reflect the concerns of the press. Beyond the simple choice of topics, there are two other issues associated with the choice of Lexis-Nexus as a data source. First, you will get multiple hits on individual statements because different media sources report on the same encyclical or communication by the church. Second, the press is likely to share a common vocabulary and consistent phraseology.

The website offers a rudimentary search capability. Running the same terms there reveals a different set of numbers:

Abortion = 4
Homosexuality = 6
Condom = 0
Birth Control = 3
Poverty = 81
'The poor' = 181

To be fair, 'the poor' numbers are skewed because the results contain references to 'the poor in spirit', quotes like "Blessed are the poor", and other similar returns.

However, the numbers are dramatically different from those reported in your post. Using your search terms alone, 'poverty' occurs approximately six times more frequently than all other terms put together.

Please consider reporting these results, or results from some other search engine that allows you to examine papal pronouncements directly.

Thanks for reading this comment.

- Mike

Jay Livingston said...

Mike, I just noticed that your comment wound up in the spam filter. Very strange, especially considering some of the bot-placed "comments" that get through.

Anyway, you’re absolutely right. This post was not my finest hour. Thanks for the data. I looked at a couple of encyclicals on some website and saw that the ambiguities in language would make it difficult to set up a coding function for content analysis. These ambiguities were not just for poor and poverty, but IIRC, issues of birth control and abortion were referred to in oblique terms. In any case, I didn’t notice the search function. Also, I was looking only at Pope Benedict’s pronouncements. Is that where your numbers come from?

That said, I do think that Douthat is a being a bit disingenuous in suggesting that sex/repro issues rarely intrude into messages from the pulpit.

Mike said...

Dr. Livingston,

Thanks for your response.

The numbers, rough as they are, come from the website This site appears to include documents going back to 1227. So, the numbers I presented are from all documents, going back to 1227. I should probably insert some caveats here about 'searchable' and 'in English'.

This page claims to have a complete index:

The site offers the ability to search the encyclicals of individual popes.

FWIW, I agree that sex/repro issues ARE frequently discussed in modern churches. However, I think that it is seldom done from the pulpit and even more seldom in any sort of official pronouncement. Instead, it is presented in study groups and religious classes as a part of custom and doctrine. The obliqueness you mention is almost always present.

Thanks again for your response.