Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Lobbying for the Faithful

Evolution, Growth and Turnover

Updated May 15, 2012

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Religious advocacy in early American history generally focused on state and local governments. But religious groups and organizations occasionally were drawn into national lobbying campaigns for issues in which they had a strong interest, such as slavery and Sunday mail delivery.3

A permanent religious advocacy infrastructure began to emerge in the nation’s capital in the late 19th century, as the role of the federal government expanded after the Civil War. During the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant, for example, the federal government contracted with church organizations to run schools, orphanages and other social programs for Native Americans. A number of denominations participated in the program, including the Roman Catholic Church, which established the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions in 1881 to coordinate the sizeable grants it received.

Toward the end of the 19th century, as the movement against consumption of alcohol gained strength in the U.S., several temperance organizations with ties to religious groups established Washington offices, including the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in 1895 and the Anti- Saloon League of America in 1899. The League’s Washington office was directly across from the U.S. Capitol.

Growth in the Early 20th Century

The Christian Science Church and the Seventh-day Adventist Church were among the first religious traditions to establish permanent advocacy offices in Washington. The Christian Scientists established their office around 1900. The Adventist Church – which places great emphasis on religious freedom at home and abroad, in part because of its Saturday Sabbath – established a permanent advocacy office in 1901.4

By the second decade of the 20th century, many large denominations had come to recognize the value of having a Washington office. Among those setting up national advocacy offices at this time were the Methodist Episcopal Church (which after a series of mergers with other Methodist bodies became the United Methodist Church in 1968) and the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America (a body founded in 1908 by mainline Protestant and historically black Protestant denominations that eventually became part of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA). These and other denominational groups supported such Progressive-era causes as child labor laws, food safety regulations and women’s suffrage, as well as Prohibition.


One of the most prominent Protestant organizations of the Progressive era was the Methodist Episcopal Church Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals, established in 1916 in the midst of the campaign to pass the 18th Amendment banning alcoholic beverages. In 1923, the Board of Temperance opened its stately building (now known as the United Methodist Building) on Maryland Avenue next to the Supreme Court. Today, the building houses many mainline Protestant advocacy organizations, including the Washington offices of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ, as well as other religious advocacy groups, such as Church Women United.

The agenda of the Methodist Episcopal Church Board of Temperance expanded in the first half of the 20th century, but it retained a strong focus on public morals and suppression of alcohol, narcotic drugs and gambling. By the late 1940s, it was one of the best-funded Protestant advocacy groups, with an annual budget of $250,000.5 The Board of Temperance remained active until the 1960s, when it was replaced by the General Board of Church & Society of the United Methodist Church, which has a broader advocacy agenda.

Paralleling the growth of Protestant advocacy groups was the establishment of strong Catholic institutions, including Catholic Charities USA, the National Catholic Educational Association and various bodies representing America’s Catholic bishops. In 1917, the bishops formed the National Catholic War Council, which expanded in 1919 to become the National Catholic Welfare Council (later renamed the National Catholic Welfare Conference). By the 1940s, the Conference had one of the largest staffs of any religious advocacy group in Washington, although not all of its functions were advocacy-related. In 1966, after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the American bishops merged the Welfare Conference into several new organizations, which ultimately became the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The early part of the 20th century also saw a number of national Jewish organizations open Washington offices, including the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in 1913 and B’nai B’rith International in 1937.

World War II Through the 1960s

World War II led to an increase in national religious advocacy. Members of the pacifist Quaker church, for example, formed the Friends Committee on National Legislation in 1943 to protect conscientious-objector status in the military draft, along with the broader goal of promoting social justice. (In later decades, the Committee helped push for creation of the Peace Corps, supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act and mounted a “War Is Not the Answer” campaign after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.)

National political engagement also rose in the 1940s among other Protestant denominations – including Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Congregationalists – along with groups representing humanists and advocates for the separation of church and state. By 1951, when sociologist Luke Eugene Ebersole published the first book-length study of religious lobbying, the Washington advocacy scene was already a mosaic of diverse religious traditions.6

Growth in the number of religious advocacy groups slowed somewhat from 1950 to 1970, but there were several notable additions to the advocacy community during this period. Jewish representation markedly increased, reflecting both domestic political concerns and international commitments in the wake of the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel. This included the establishment of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, as well as the establishment of Washington offices by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League.

The civil foment of the 1960s also left its imprint on the religious advocacy landscape. For example, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, an African American Baptist group formed during the civil rights movement, opened a Washington office in 1961. The Mennonite Central Committee, which opposed the Vietnam War from a pacifist perspective, opened its Washington office in 1968.

Surge in Growth After 1970

Washington-based religious advocacy surged after 1970, with the number of groups rising at an accelerating pace with each successive decade. (See graph under Growth in the Early 20th Century subsection.) Numerous organizations representing the interests of individual members on particular issues, such as abortion and hunger, entered the arena alongside groups representing institutions, such as religious schools and colleges, as well as groups representing denominations and religious traditions. Political scientists suggest several possible reasons for the rapid growth of religious lobbying during this period, including a general rise in public religious expression, both domestically and globally, and a trend toward the institutionalization of political activism in America.7 The growing reach of the federal government in economic, environmental and social policy also acted as a magnet, drawing religious groups to the nation’s capital.

Moreover, as the American religious landscape became increasingly diverse, many small U.S. religious groups, including Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’is and Sikhs, established Washington offices or expanded their existing operations.8 For instance, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is opened a Washington office in 1987 and has worked ever since to raise attention to Iran’s treatment of followers of the Baha’i faith. Similarly, the International Campaign for Tibet came to Washington in 1988 as the Dalai Lama, who personified their cause, gained international prominence. More recently, the Uyghur American Association, which opened a Washington office in 2004, gained global visibility after China’s crackdown on protests by Uyghur Muslims in the summer of 2009. Several home-grown faiths, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Church of Scientology, opened D.C. offices in the 1980s. Moreover, as differences within existing religious traditions became more politically salient in the 1990s, new groups arrived on the scene, such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. During the 1980s and ’90s, several Catholic religious orders also opened Washington advocacy offices. They included the Missionary Society of St. Columban, Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Medical Mission Sisters and Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

Turnover and Churn

From the beginning, religious advocacy in Washington has been characterized by organizational turnover and churn associated with changing fortunes. Some groups have grown while others have cut back. New groups continually have formed while older ones have faded away.

Some of the turnover can be seen by comparing five major studies of religious lobbying published over the last 60 years, including this one.9 Ebersole’s groundbreaking 1951 study listed 22 religious lobbies. Of those, five no longer existed or had closed their Washington offices by 1970, when James L. Adams published The Growing Church Lobby in Washington. Nearly two decades later, when Hertzke published his book, Representing God in Washington, all but one of the groups Adams had counted were still in existence. But three closed between Hertzke’s 1988 study and Paul J. Weber and W. Landis Jones’ 1994 book, U.S. Religious Interest Groups: Institutional Profiles. The Weber-Jones study, which was the most comprehensive attempt to profile all of the existing religious advocacy organizations up to that time, listed 82 groups. Of them, 10 (or 12%) had become inactive or closed their Washington offices by September 2008, when the Pew Forum began researching this study.

Part of the churn is related to the rise and fall in political importance of particular issues. For example, temperance groups, a prominent feature of religious advocacy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, have largely vanished from the national scene. Similarly, the sanctuary movement – a religious coalition that formed in the 1980s to oppose the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America and shelter refugees from civil conflicts in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala – effectively disappeared from Washington after those conflicts came to an end.10

Following the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which granted women the constitutional right to terminate their pregnancies, religion-related advocacy groups proliferated on both sides of the abortion debate. Many of these groups, such as the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, remain active today. More recently, President George W. Bush’s initiative to support faith-based social services led to the creation of new coalitions, such as the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. Heightened interest in the same-sex marriage issue also sparked the formation and expansion of competing groups. The Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for same-sex marriage, formed its Religion and Faith Program in 2005. The National Organization for Marriage, a group founded in 2007 to advocate for traditional marriage, moved to Washington in 2009 with total expenses of almost $8.6 million, up from roughly $3.3 million the previous year.

Financial ups and downs – sometimes related to the shifting importance of political issues, but sometimes stemming from other factors, such as a decline in church membership or the personalities and skills of group leaders – also have contributed to turnover among religious advocacy organizations. The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, for example, merged its Washington Office for Advocacy with another department and reduced its staff in 2010 due to declining revenues.11 Similarly, several Protestant denominations that once maintained Washington-area offices, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AME Zion) Church, Church of the Brethren and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, no longer do so.

Issue-based groups also have experienced rising and declining fortunes. The Moral Majority, one of the vanguard organizations of the conservative Christian movement in the early 1980s, closed its Washington operations in 1989. At the same time, Sojourners, an ecumenical Christian group, has grown into an organization that spends more than $5 million annually on its advocacy efforts.

Finally, the prominence of global issues in recent years has spurred the formation of new advocacy groups, such as the Save Darfur Coalition, the China Aid Association (an evangelical group that advocates for Christians in China), the Dalit Freedom Network (focused on the rights of “untouchables” and others who face caste-based discrimination in India) and the Institute for Global Engagement, which advocates for international religious freedom. Some international aid groups, such as World Hope International, World Relief and Catholic Relief Services, established Washington offices during the 2000s, as they came to see how U.S. aid and trade policies affected their work abroad.

Despite turnover and churn, religious lobbying and public policy advocacy have become enduring features of the Washington political scene.


3 For a discussion of the history of religious advocacy in the early 19th century, see Daniel J. B. Hofrenning, In Washington but Not of It: The Prophetic Politics of Religious Lobbyists, Temple University Press, 1995.(return to text)

4 See Luke Eugene Ebersole, Church Lobbying in the Nation’s Capital, MacMillan, 1951. (return to text)

5 See Ebersole 1951. Ebersole provides 1949 budget data for the major church lobbies in existence at the time. (return to text)

6 See Ebersole 1951. (return to text)

7 See, for example, José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World, University of Chicago Press, 1994; and Ronald Inglehart, Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society, Princeton University Press, 1990. (return to text)

8 For a discussion of religious diversity in America, see Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America, HarperCollins, 2001. (return to text)

9 Ebersole 1951; James L. Adams, The Growing Church Lobby in Washington, Eerdmans, 1970; Allen D. Hertzke, Representing God in Washington: The Role of Religious Lobbies in the American Polity, University of Tennessee Press, 1988; and Paul J. Weber and W. Landis Jones, U.S. Religious Interest Groups: Institutional Profiles, Greenwood Press, 1994. (return to text)

10 Seeking to pick up where the earlier coalition left off, an organization called the New Sanctuary Movement formed in 2007 to seek “comprehensive immigration reform.” According to its website, it has permanent offices in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago but not Washington (and hence is not included in this study). See (return to text)

11 For details on the UUA’s decision to reduce the number of staff in its Washington Office for Advocacy, see (return to text)

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