By David Briggs
The actress Katherine Heigl has publicly lamented, “If I start going back to church, I’d have to stop the smoking and drinking.”
There is reason for her and others to feel that way.
While many congregations have dropped prohibitions on activities such as homosexual behavior and sex before marriage, the rate of religious communities setting rules on alcohol and tobacco remained fairly steady, according to the U.S. Congregational Life Survey.
In the case of rapidly growing congregations, there is some evidence of increasing strictness regarding both activities. One study showed the percentage of fast-growing churches in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) having rules on smoking and drinking increased more than four-fold from 2002 to 2011.
In 2002, just 2 percent of fast growing Presbyterian congregations reported having special rules or prohibitions regarding members smoking or drinking alcohol. In 2011, nine percent of fast growing churches had special rules on smoking and 11 percent reported rules on drinking.
More than three-quarters of fast-growing Presbyterian congregations in 2002 reported having rules on homosexual behavior; just 17 percent reported having such rules in 2011. The percentage of fast-growing congregations with rules or prohibitions on cohabitation dropped from 55 percent in 2002 to 13 percent in 2011.
Ida Smith-Williams, a researcher with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, compared survey data from 114 fast growing Presbyterian churches in 2011 with responses from 93 fast growing Presbyterian congregations in 2002.
Overall data from the congregational profiles in the 2001 and 2008 U.S. congregational life surveys show far more rapid declines among churches in reporting special rules on cohabitation and homosexual behavior than in rules regarding smoking and drinking.
In the 2001 survey, a quarter of congregations reported having special rules or prohibitions regarding alcohol use and 15 percent reported rules on smoking. In the 2008 survey, 19 percent of congregations had rules on drinking and 13 percent had regulations on smoking.
Compare those modest drops to the changes in the areas of sexuality. Two-thirds of congregations in the 2001 survey reported having special rules on homosexual behavior and 55 percent had guidelines about unmarried adults living together. In the 2008 congregational profile, 38 percent of congregations reported special rules on homosexual behavior and 32 percent had rules on cohabitation.
Why were the rules on smoking and drinking more likely to remain a part of congregational life, or in the cases of some fast growing churches become even more prevalent, during a period of growing religious individualism?
In part, the retention of guidelines on alcohol and tobacco use may also reflect a shifting emphasis in religion and the larger culture in promoting public health even if it means greater regulation of individuals.
That fast-growing churches would be more associated with rules on drinking and smoking also may not be so surprising.
In analyzing the findings, Smith-Williams said the first thing that came to her mind was the strict church theory described by sociologists such as Laurence Iannaccone that notes having clear guidelines tends to screen out members who lack commitment and stimulate participation among those who remain.
Many congregations appear to be easing up on older prohibitions. But none of these special rules appear to be disappearing from American religious life. The rules congregations choose, and how they decide to promote them, are a key part of their identity.