Sounds of Silence

by Rodney Stark, Foster, Glock and Quinley

Rodney Stark is Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington. Charles Y. Glock it Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley. Harold Quinley is Professor of Sociology at McGill Univerisity, Montreal.

This essay appeared in Psychlogy Today magazine, April 1970, pp. 38 – 62.


The authors examine preaching in 1,580 churches, and conclude that whether or not people listen, there is not much to hear. Most sermons rarely touch on controversial moral and ethical issues.

The churches have often been likened to a sleeping giant—an institution with a vast but dormant potential for creating brotherhood, social justice and a more humane society. With its huge membership and presumed moral authority it is assumed that if the giant roused itself, it could be a potent social force.

Some of our earlier studies have shown that the persons who most need their prejudices shaken are often the ones most likely to be in church on Sunday morning. This is why people speak of the giant as sleeping and why ministers, with their choice Sunday-morning audiences, have a unique opportunity to contribute to the public good.

One must wonder why the influence of religious institutions has remained potential for so long. Recent studies by Milton Rokeach have strongly confirmed and extended our earlier finding that belief in Christian teachings is often incompatible with concern for Christian ethics. Many clergymen say in despair that their sermons seem to fall upon deaf ears; that people are able to compartmentalize their lives so that prejudice, hatred and selfishness remain unaffected by messages from the pulpit.

The sermon is the primary medium through which church members learn their pastor’s instructions in the meaning and direction of Christian thought. Yet the sermon appears to be ineffective as a moral guide, and many ministers seem to be unable to fill the role of the shepherd guiding his flock.

Issues. Concerns such as these prompted us to conduct a thorough survey of Protestant ministers from nine major denominations in California. In the spring of 1968 we picked a stratified random sample which included two-thirds of the Protestant ministers and sent each an extensive questionnaire. Since the samples were random, every minister in California had an equal chance of being selected. Questionnaires were completed by 1,580, a satisfying 63 percent.

When we analyzed the results, we began to see why Christian congregations have been so unshaken by years of sermonizing. It turns out that whether or not people listen, there is not much to hear. Most sermons rarely touch on controversial moral and ethical issues. More than a third of the clergy said that never in their entire ministries had they taken a pulpit stand on a political issue. We stress issue because we wished to distinguish it from taking stands on political candidates. Political issues are not just partisan matters, but include controversies like school prayers, racism, drug legislation, sexual conduct, divorce and pornography.) Even the clergymen who had commented on social issues were not particularly vocal. Only 25 percent those surveyed had in the last year given at least five sermons that dealt mainly with controversial topics.

Doctrine. We wondered whether speaking out from the pulpit was related to the religious convictions of the clergymen, so we constructed a Doctrine Index, scoring for a minister whenever he expressed unwavering faith in any of five traditional doctrines: the existence of a personal God; the divinity of Jesus; life beyond death; the literal existence of the devil and the necessity to believe in Jesus in order to be saved.

Doctrine-Index scores ranged from 0 to 4, depending on how many of the doctrines a minister believed in. Most of our ministers were traditionalists, holding to the orthodox doctrines. (So few rejected only one doctrine that we combined them with the ministers who accepted all doctrines.) A substantial number rejected two doctrines, somewhat fewer rejected three, and so on, with a small minority of modernists who rejected all of the traditional Christian beliefs.

The Doctrine-Index score was strongly related to the tendency to speak out: of the modernists, 93 per cent had taken a stand on a political issue from the pulpit. Only 42 per cent of the traditionalists had done so.

"Political issue" is a vague term, and we realized that trivial as well as major matters could be included in these estimates. So we asked the ministers to be more specific. During the period of this study there were three issues in California in which clergy had been especially vocal—at least in news reports—so we asked each of our pastors specifically whether he had ever delivered a sermon or a section of a sermon on Proposition 14, the grape-workers’ strike or the Vietnam War.

Open Housing. Proposition 14 was a proposed constitutional amendment placed on tlie ballot by real-estate leaders, designed to repeal an existing open-housing law and to prevent any future Legislature from passing such a law. The amendment was strongly opposed by major political spokesmen from both parties and brought an outpouring of clergy opposition unprecedented in recent California history. Newspapers ran a great many ads signed by most of the prominent church leaders—not only clerical activists, but also bishops and other leaders not noted for public participation in social issues. (The proposition passed two-to-one at the polls. The electorate ignored the moral leadership and voted out the open-housing law. The amendment was later declared unconstitutional by the courts.)

The public activity of religious leaders and religious institutions was only partly reflected in the sermons of the rank-and-file clergy. Just over half (56 per cent) of those pastors who served parishes in California at the time of the election had ever delivered a sermon or even a part of a sermon on the Proposition 14 issue. From the rest of the pulpit, silence reigned. Silence was highly related to belief in traditional church doctrines: 95 per cent of the modernists preached on Proposition 14 while only 29 per cent of the traditionalists did so.

Grape Strike. Another important California social issue at the time was the effort by migratory farm workers to organize a union and obtain minimal wages and benefits. To the rest of the nation this is known as the California Grape Strike. During the height of the organizing drive—which continues— prominent Americans, including the late Robert F. Kennedy and Walter Reuther, came to march with strike leader César Chavez and his workers in Delano, California. And clergymen were highly visible among the marchers and supporters all over the state.

Our survey, however, showed that only 22 per cent of clergymen delivered sermons or sections of sermons on the farm workers’ strike. Again, this was strongly related to the Doctrine-Index: while more than half (52 per cent) of the most liberal clergymen spoke out on the issue, only nine per cent of the most conservative did so. The activist New Breed clergy saw compelling Christian issues in the strike, but this view was not shared by a large majority of the clergymen.

Holy War. The war in Vietnam was surely the most profound American social and political issue at the time of the survey. The nation was writhing with doubt about the morality of the interminable bloodshed. Scores of Americans felt morally compelled to go to jail for resisting the draft or for acts of protest against the war. Bitter controversy raged over the Christian view of the war. The late Francis Joseph Cardinal Spellman saw it as a holy and Christian endeavor. Other Christian spokesmen have seen the war as most morally reprehensible. Meanwhile, back in the pulpit, what were the California clergy saying?

A third of them have never even devoted a section of a sermon to the war. And among the most theologically conservative ministers, the majority (51 per cent) had never even mentioned the war from the pulpit. Of course, speaking on the war did not mean opposing it—the questionnaire asked only whether the war was mentioned in a sermon. In a crude measure of hawkishness we asked the ministers whether we ought to "increase our military efforts in order to win the war." Of all the clergy 27 per cent agreed (55 per cent of those most theologically conservative). Of course there is no reason why hawks as well as doves should not speak out on the war. Indeed, some did. But most hawks were also theologically conservative and were much less likely to preach on the war.

The fact that one out of three Protestant clergy had never said a word about the war indicates a degree of silence that seriously challenges the notion of sermon as a source of moral guidance.

Biafrans. In another part of the questionnaire we asked the clergymen to say how much they had talked about certain other important moral questions. But here we asked them to limit their estimates specifically to sermons delivered during the past year.

The "past year" in this case was from the late spring of 1967 to the late spring of 1968. This was one of the most agonizing years in American history. In the summer of 1967 parts of Detroit and dozens of other American cities burned. The Kerner Commission issued its monuinental report on the racial crisis. Eugene McCarthy launched his peace campaign. Lyndon Johnson announced his withdrawal from politics and began a new effort to negotiate peace. The Middle East was torn by a lightning war and a bleeding peace. l3iafrans starved by the tens of thousands. In Memphis, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was gunned down and a new wave of riots followed.

Yet even in this year of racial turmoil, death and tragedy, the majority of Protestant clergymen in the progressive state of California had not devoted a single sermon to racial problems.

Nothing so underscores the discontinuity between the clerical activists, who have marched and even died for racial justice, and their nondemonstrating brethren. It is not simply a difference between words and deeds; the majority of clergymen have no words, either.

On the other national and international issues there were almost no sermons. The strong relationship between silence and the Doctrine Index persisted on almost all the issues.

Bias. It must be recognized that our questions established only the minimum level of preaching on issues. Our data do not show which ministers preached often on socially relevant topics—only how many failed to preach on them at all. Further, it is possible that some clergymen—feeling they surely ought to have mentioned one of these topics—may have reported sermons they wished they had preached along with those they did preach. Nor can we eliminate sermons in which the topics were discussed so allegorically that many in the congregation did not understand what was being implied. We can also assume that clergymen in California are not a representative sample of clergymen all over the United States, but are, if anything, more liberal and vocal. For validation we did a study of a randomly chosen sample of the ministers who had not returned our questionnaire. We found that in our study sample there was a modest over-representation of younger and more liberal clergymen. Consequently, because of all these built-in biases, our findings are the most generous possible estimate of the extent to which the American Sunday morning sermon is concerned with socially relevant issues.

Perhaps the clergymen were saving their moral opinions for other parts of their pastoral duties. But barely half (54 per cent) said that they frequently discuss public affairs with members of their congregation.

Deafness. Perhaps clergymen are simply frustrated by the feeling that their flocks don’t listen to them. This deaf-ears argument was rejected right away—two-thirds of the ministers (68 per cent) agreed that "Clergymen have great potential to influence the political and social beliefs of their parishioners." And this belief in the power of the pulpit was not related to the Doctrine Index.

The traditional clergymen felt just as influential as the modernists, perhaps more. Still, they did not try.

Many clergymen believe that their congregations object to relevant sermons. Only eight per cent agreed that most members of their congregation would approve of a pulpit stand on a political issue. All the clergymen agree on the question of lay resistance to this-worldly talk from the pulpit. But conservative clergymen conform to these expectations and the liberals do not. Thus, perceptions of the laity cannot account for the differences between them.

Are the clergymen silent because of pressures from their colleagues? Over all, about two-thirds thought their colleagues would approve of their giving a socially relevant sermon. Here the strong relationship with doctrinalism recurs. Modernists think their colleagues would approve of such sermons and traditionalists think their colleagues would not approve. But peer pressure cannot explain the difference. Conservative pastors are not simply giving in to the objections of their colleagues: they themselves do not strongly approve of such use of the pulpit.

What do clergymen think is the proper use of the sermon? We asked them how important it was to accomplish each of several purposes in their sermons: 1) to provide spiritual uplift and moral comfort to those who are distressed (59 per cent thought it very important); 2) to point out the existence of human sin (54 per cent); 3) to illustrate the type of life a Christian should follow (79 per cent); and 4) to apply Christian standards to human institutions and behavior (73 per cent). The relationship with doctrinalism held on all but the fourth purpose—generally, the per cent of conservative clergymen who approved each purpose of the sermon far exceeded the per cent of liberal clergymen who did so.

Vices. These different views about the sermon come into clearer focus when we look more closely at the amount of preaching on the 13 issues we examined. Typically the traditionalist clergy are the most silent on all issues—except the four that are considered personal vices: crime and juvenile delinquency, drug use, alcoholism and sexual conduct. On these four there is a marked tendency for both the modernists and the traditionalists to speak out. Traditional Christianity has placed major emphasis on personal vices as barriers to salvation. We suspect that when the conservative clergy preach on such topics it is to denounce such individual action -- when they preach on crime they emphasize "Thou shalt not steal," while the more liberal clergy emphasize the social causes of crime.

It is inadequate to conclude that the major reason the clergy do not speak out on important issues is simply that they are committed to traditional Christian doctrine. The Sermon on the Mount is also a part of traditional Christianity. What is it about doctrinal commitment that causes the conservative clergy to remain silent? We asked the ministers directly what they thought was the function and mission of the church. We identified two conflicting views of the church's function, which we called Other-worldliness and This-worldliness.

Billy Graham. Evangelism is one type of Other-worldliness, exemplified by Billy Graham. Individual salvation is seen as the solution to our worldly problems. If all men are brought to Christ social evils will disappear. Clergymen who follow this belief concentrate on conversion and evangelism. They mostly ignore social and political efforts for reform because so long as there are men who have not been won to Christ a sinful society is inevitable.

Another Other-worldliness view holds that life is merely a time of testing during which one must establish his right to spend eternity in heaven. This conception rejects the possibility of substantially improving worldly affairs. "Where will you spend eternity?" is the only worthwhile concern, so why go to the trouble of talking about superficialities such as programs to solve social crises?

The more liberal This-worldly clergy reject such views. Their emphasis is not on getting right with God, but on getting right with other men. These clergymen stress loving thy neighbor as the major Christian ethical dictum.

We found that the ministers’ opinions about the role of the church were strongly related to their belief in traditional doctrines. Forty-four per cent of the sample agreed with the evangelist statement that "If enough men were brought to Christ, social ills would take care of themselves." But there was a wide split -- 77 per cent of the conservative ministers agreed, but only seven per cent of the theological liberals.

Heaven. A similar pattern appeared in response to an extreme anti-Otherworldly view: "It is not as important to worry about life after death as about what one can do in this life." The total agreement was 68 per cent, but this ranged from 42 per cent of the traditionalist clergy up to 100 per cent of the modernists.

We began to see that many church leaders are silent because their doctrinal commitment— Other-worldliness —makes preaching on vital issues seem irrelevant. We asked three questions relating to Other-worldliness and found that such beliefs were strongly but not totally related to doctrinalism. We could find This-worldly and Other-worldly ministers among both the modernists and the traditionalists.

The questionnaire data supported our idea—the traditionalist clergy were generally much more silent, but when we looked closer at them we found that the ones who rejected Other-worldly ideals were much more likely to speak out than traditionalists who embraced Otherworldliness. The same was true at all levels of the Doctrine Index—it was the Other-worldliness and found that such silent. Of course, only a few of the modem clergy are Other-worldly, while a great many of the traditionalists are; this basic division of clergymen is what led to our original finding that doctrinalism was so strongly related to speaking out.

Thus, it seems that it is the theological beliefs of the clergy themselves that keep them silent in the pulpit. Indeed, the clergymen recognize this: 94 per cent of the liberal ministers thought their own theological views generally encouraged their participation in social-action activities, but only 39 per cent of the most conservative clergy thought so.

Joy. We are forced to conclude that a major reason that clergymen high on doctrinalism are so unlikely to preach about the problems of race, war and poverty is that they see such problems as mundane in contrast to the joys of the world to come, and besides, they believe these social ills would take care of themselves if enough men were brought to Christ. Thus it is because of their religious convictions that many Protestant clergymen do not speak out on social issues. If the majority are silent, it is because they believe that is best.

These findings appear dismal for those who hope to awaken the churches to the urgent problems of modern society. However, those who believe that the churches can play a role in those problems have never pinned their hopes on the silent majority of clergy.4 Rather, they believe in an impending reformation based on the outspoken minority— a New Breed of theologically liberal, activist clergymen. Our data indicate that there is such a minority in today’s ministry—but is it the vanguard of sweeping theological and institutional change?

Defection. There are signs that during the past decade the New Breed has been influential in campus and experimental ministries and even in administrative positions within the churches, but our data suggest they have had little success at the parish level, where most clergymen are and where most communication between the clergy and the laity takes place. Here the proportion of Old Breed ministers has not declined. On the contrary it appears that not only are the New Breed a very small minority among parish ministers, but their numbers may now actually be declining.

In the ministry today, defection is high and probably on the increase, while recruitment is declining. There are many cues that both processes mainly affect the New Breed. In our study we asked all clergymen to reconsider their calling: Looking back on things—if you had it to do over—how certain are you that you would enter the ministry? It seems a telling comment that only just over half (56 per cent) of California ministers said they definitely would do it again. More important only 14 per cent of the modernist clergymen believed they definitely would go into the c1ergy again while 75 per cent of the traditionalists definitely would.

It may yet be, as some clergy activists predict, that the discouragement of the New Breed with the parish church will produce radically new forms of ministry, and transformation in the church. But this assumes a church that can survive as an institution without relying on the parish as its primary unit. In our judgment this does not seem likely.

So far as we can tell, Sunday mornings will remain the same, with America's silent majority sitting in the churches, listening to silent sermons