No Radicalism Here: Faculty Survey

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

This article appeared in the Christian Century August 18-25, 1982, p. 843. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


A recent faculty survey is devastating to the preconceptions of those who carry radical images of the theological professoriate. Doctrinally these faculty members are conventional. Ecclesiastically they are faithful. In general we get the image that, across the spectrum, they are bourgeois Hauspapas (although 7.7 per cent are female).

Appearing three times a year, the scholarly journal This World is funded by the Institute for Educational Affairs and the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Therefore it has plenty of money, and it used some of it wisely to commission an independent survey of theological seminary professors in the United States (Summer 1982, $4.00). The researchers from the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut chose 2,000 such professors at random and received an impressive 57-per-cent return as 1,112 took time to answer 200 questions.

The survey’s denominational spread seems fair. There were 221 Catholics, 166 Baptists, 122 Methodists -- a breakdown which follows church-body rankings in America, although Lutherans instead of being in fourth place were sixth, with 95. The Roper people and their proofreaders get things a bit mixed up as they deal with two “Morvarians,” one “Evengelical Mennonite,” five “Advent Christians” -- want to bet the latter were Seventh-day Adventists, who have eight times as many clergy as Advent Christians? The researchers fatally confuse Church of Christ with United Church of Christ. More important, they lump both with Methodists and Pentecostals as “nonliturgicals” in their findings. Meanwhile, “liturgicals” such as Missouri Synod Lutherans and Episcopalians are clumped, despite their differences, only because their ritual is more structured. There are better ways to classify church bodies.

Still, why gripe, since the Roper and This Worldly people have left us with many important responses? For most of our comments, we shall deal with the “total sample” in any case, seeing professors as a unit rather than severing them into Catholic, non-liturgical, liturgical and “other” clusters.

The survey is devastating to the preconceptions of those who carry radical images of the theological professoriate. Doctrinally these faculty members are conventional. Ecclesiastically they are faithful. In general we get the image that, across the spectrum, they are bourgeois Hauspapas (although 7.7 per cent are female). Politically they seem a bit lethargic, still trapped in ordinary New Dealish liberalisms. They did not begin with or turn from radicalism with the new conservatives who publish This World.

Were they ever radical? What ever happened to that irresponsible crowd of mavericks who a dozen years ago and more were announcing the death of God, defending the New Morality, or writing books on The Secular City, Theology for Radical Politics or The Secular Meaning of the Gospel, and trying to bring down the establishment? Here in Roperdom are no signs of such past attachments -- and few can remember any, if they once held them, say the statistics. Maybe there was a brain drain from seminaries to university religion departments, which house a greater number of radicals. Maybe the media misrepresented the many while focusing on the few. In any case, call off the heresy hunters and witch seekers. We’re safe nowadays.

The poll asked: Are you highly observant in religious practice? Here 84 per cent of the seminary professors answered yes, and only 1 per cent were “largely” or “totally nonobservant.” So much for Sunday-morning slugabedism. In the total sample, 12 per cent are fundamentalist, 55 per cent self-described evangelical, 69 per cent mainline and 45 per cent liberal -- which means that many are more than one thing. Eighty-five per cent are ordained ministers; 75 per cent have been parish ministers and 13 per cent still are. School prayer in public institutions? Sixty-eight per cent of the professors oppose it, just as 63 per cent oppose “the biblical view of Creation being taught in the public schools along with the theory of evolution.” Interestingly, most of the opposition came from the South (where the Southern Baptist Convention, going against its professors and violating its dearest traditions, recently voted in favor of a school-prayer amendment!). Curiously, although the Supreme Court encourages teaching about the major religions in public schools, only 58 per cent of those surveyed favor it. Few seminary graduates teach in public institutions, so the professors have little personal involvement in this question professionally.

Wherever they stand on economics today, 70 per cent of the respondents believe that the Bible favors a society based on cooperation; only 2 per cent, one based on competition. They keep a foot firmly in all camps when 92 per cent say that a person could be a member in good standing of their church and adhere to “democratic socialism,” 81 per cent to “laissez-faire capitalism” and 36 per cent to “Marxism.” Very few object to denominations speaking out on public issues, and most (80 per cent) agree with most of their own church body’s positions in this field. The majority perceive great gaps between these positions and local clergy and laity. Almost none thinks that the pulpit is an appropriate place to boost particular political candidates, and almost none thinks that his or her church is too involved in social-justice causes.

Whatever happened to the radicals on the “far left”? Only 2 per cent of the seminary faculty members locate themselves there, and only 14 per cent are “very liberal” in their own mirrors. Not one was “far right.” Most of the professors tilt toward the Democratic Party. In their eyes, America is becoming less compassionate toward the poor, and, say two-thirds of them, the nation is “somewhat,” not “a lot” (28 per cent), more conservative than ten years ago. Most of them think they are about where they were ten years ago, though 1 per cent are “a lot more conservative” -- along with the This World people (in our image of their self-image) -- and 20 per cent are “somewhat more conservative.”

Seventy-four per cent of those polled feel that the U.S. spends too much on arms, and very few think it spends too much on welfare. See how tiredly late New-Dealish they are? Only 5 per bent “strongly agree” and 33 per cent “agree” that the U.S. would be better off if it moved toward socialism. Only 11 per cent see any reason for Americans to justify using violence to achieve political goals. Eighty-one per cent would like to see a step-up in arms-control negotiations with the Soviets, though only 46 per cent regard the use of nuclear weapons as “always morally wrong.” Roman Catholics, at 60 per cent, are most opposed to nuclear weapons in any circumstance.

Creationists will have a hard time convincing legislators and courts that those who teach tomorrow’s clergy are in their camp, since 69 per cent of the Protestants accept the theory of evolution; 98 per cent of the Catholics do, while 100 per cent of the Catholics think that evolution does not deny but instead “explains” creation. Only 2 per cent see science as a threat to religion. The professors like nature and would like for it to be around and cared for a bit longer.

These educators are not too happy about the foreign-policy images and activities of the U.S., since only 57 per cent say that the nation is “in general a force for good in the world.” Eighty per cent see the U.S.-Soviet clash as “power politics,” and only 20 per cent see it as “moral struggle.” In this zone not all readers will agree with my picture of the seminary professors as safe and settled. Seventy per cent are wary of multinational corporations. As to whether repressive regimes on “our” side or communism constitutes the greater problem, they split 50-50. Still, not safe.

Let’s run for cover. Eighty per cent of the respondents call Jesus “Son of God”; 11 per cent more, “promised Messiah.” Only 1 per cent view him as a “political revolutionary,” and the turn-of-the-century liberalism that saw him as moral teacher, prophet or itinerant preacher hardly shows up on the screen. Of course, 99 per cent are “pro” existence of God, and think their students are with them; 88 per cent affirm immortal life (though we’ll bet many had to translate that term with “resurrection,” not “immortality,” in mind). Eighty-three per cent anticipate a final judgment, but only half think of “a place of Eternal Torment.”

Will the biblical inerrantists win? Only 11 per cent of Catholics have use for the movement, while 27 per cent of the whole sample does. The seminary professors estimate that 30 per cent of their students favor the concept of biblical inerrancy. About two-thirds of the professors do see the Bible as infallible in faith and morals matters. Most of them pray and worship regularly, but not too many regularly have mystical experiences. Well, who does -- and holds tenure? The professors don’t like abortion, 70 per cent deeming it immoral when a married woman resorts to it to stop having children; but only 44 per cent want laws against it. Sixty-four per cent regard homosexual relations in private between consenting adults as immoral, but 75 per cent do not want a law against such practices. Though the professors really stand with the public samples on these “social issues,” they would rely on persuasion, not coercion, to make the “moral” point.

Is premarital sex immoral? Seventy per cent of those polled think so. Extramarital? Ninety per cent. Good-bye, new morality -- but here again the professors are not eager for laws. Fifty-three per cent find divorce “morally neutral,” but only 23 per cent find remarriage of the divorced who have living spouses to be immoral.

Few of the respondents view their church bodies as liberal (from 2 per cent Catholic to 22 per cent in two other clusters), and they split about half and half as to whether they consider themselves more liberal than or as moderate as other members of their church body. Only 15 per cent think they are more conservative than their co-religionists; clearly, the professors are not custodians of the denominational antique shops and doctrinal museums. Eighty-one per cent think their denominations are “about right” in maintaining orthodoxy among their members and in the seminaries (83 per cent).

As for ordination of women, no less than 74 per cent of the Roman Catholic respondents (and 75 per cent of everybody) are in favor. Only 22 per cent of the professors favor ordination of known practicing homosexuals. The South, with 30 per cent, has the highest proportion in favor of ordination of homosexuals -- still another southern surprise. The professors endorse religious pluralism, though their personal attention to ecumenical matters wavers; yet they find few good rationales for denominational separatism. Is there still a “superchurch” out there? Only 11 per cent (24 per cent of the Catholics) look forward to or expect one. Seventy-eight per cent think religion is too uninfluential in America. Although the professors think politicians pay much more attention to religious values than do business leaders, they wish both groups would heed religion more. Almost all favor tax exemption for religiously used church property and oppose it for property owned by churches but not used for religious purposes. Seventy-seven per cent “in general” are unsympathetic toward Moral Majority efforts; 70 per cent feel the organization is harmful in politics; 72 per cent think it does damage to the cause of religion in the country. However, 63 per cent believe it will lose influence soon, and 69 per cent believe the same concerning the Moral Majority’s leader, Jerry Falwell.

These are only a few tantalizations from the Roper researchers’ statistical tables, interspersed with some of the ahas and hmmmms such polls inspire. After a quiet summer off from classroom duties, at a safe distance from multinational corporations, secularized businessmen, and the as-yet-unredeemed American economic system, maybe -- if this survey is accurate -- the seminary professors will come back a little closer to This World and this world than they’ve been in the past.