Politics and Polarization in the UMC


2022 - Ongoing

Project status: In Progress



Recent data from the National Survey of Religious Leaders shows that while conservative Protestant congregations are highly polarized (80% of members and clergy lean Republican), Mainline Protestants are split along partisan lines and Mainline clergy are more liberal than their congregations. Research with the United Methodist clergy and Duke Divinity students suggests that political tensions and polarization are salient issues for Mainline religious leaders. More research needs to be done on Mainline clergy and their congregations as sites for bridging political differences.

Project Description:

The project team explored the social, political and health impacts of political polarization in Mainline clergy and congregations with the ultimate aim of developing recommendations to clergy for how to facilitate civil discourse and bridge political difference.

Team members focused on three key project goals:

  1. Interviews with current clergy: To examine the current state of practice and thinking among clergy with regard to political polarization in their congregations, team members interviewed 50 United Methodist pastors and documented how they’ve experienced polarization and how they managed difference in their churches. Team members asked questions such as: Where do clergy see evidence of polarization and political tension in their congregations?; How have clergy addressed political issues in their ministry?; What challenges do clergy face when they address these topics?; and What resources do clergy need to feel equipped to address issues and facilitate dialogue across political difference?
  2. Collection and textual analysis of sermons: To understand how political differences between pastors and congregations impact the health and wellbeing of clergy leaders, team members collected and analyzed a database of sermons drawn from key dates, such as the 2020 election, the Capital breach in January 2021 and the killing of George Floyd. The database included sermons from the fifty interviewed pastors as well as a more diverse set of sermons via statewide sampling. The team developed coding tools for content related to politics and polarization. 
  3. Analysis of survey and administrative data: Finally, team members will assess their collected data to develop examples, best practices and recommendations to clergy and key stakeholders (e.g., Duke Divinity School, United Methodist conference leaders, clergy across denominations) for how to facilitate civil discourse and bridge political differences in Mainline congregations. The Duke Clergy Health Initiative has been collecting longitudinal data with over 2,000 United Methodist pastors across the state since 2008, providing rich data on clergy wellbeing, career trajectories, demographics and social networks. Team members will clean and prepare the social network data for analysis as well as gather administrative data on political affiliation across North Carolina counties to develop a community-level measure of political polarization. Using these data, team members will explore: the connection between clergy wellbeing and political difference in their congregations and/or communities; whether clergy social networks are growing more polarized since the election of Donald Trump; and how increasing community-level polarization impacts clergy wellbeing.

Anticipated Outputs

Sermons database; digital resources; coding tools; blog posts; op-eds; visualizations


Summer 2022 – Summer 2023

  • Summer 2022 (optional): Design interview guide; conduct interviews; prepare transcripts for analysis 
  • Fall 2022: Conduct structural coding on interview transcripts; write memos on emergent themes; generate thematic code book; create data collection; collect and organize sermons; clean transcribed sermons for analysis; map clergy social networks 
  • Spring 2023: conduct thematic analysis on interview transcripts; write-up key findings; conduct human content coding of sermons; develop model for automated coding; generate mapping of sermons/pastors in semantic space; finalize statistical analysis of wellbeing and polarization; finalize formal social network analysis 
  • Summer 2023 (optional): production of outputs (blog posts, op-eds, videos) for denominational leaders, funders, public media and academic publication 



Graduate Team Members

  • Megan Forbes, Masters of Public Policy
  • Trent Ollerenshaw, Political Science-PHD
  • Haley Toresdahl, Masters of Public Policy
  • Gabriel Varela, Sociology-PHD

Undergraduate Team Members

  • Millicent Caughey
  • Oliver Hess
  • Jacqueline Irvin
  • David King
  • Shuaichen Liao, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Sejal Mayer-Patel, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Tahmara Ouedraogo, Public Policy Studies (AB)

Faculty/Staff Team Contributors

  • Jennifer Headley, Duke Global Health Institute
  • Anna Holleman, Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research
  • Brett McCarty, Population Health Sciences and Duke Divinity School
  • Jerusha Neal, Divinity School
  • David Siegel, Arts & Sciences-Political Science



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