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Survey: Evangelical leaders really don’t want to endorse politicians

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump attends a church service in Detroit on Sept. 3, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Carlo Allegri/

(RNS) The centerpiece of President Trump’s religious freedom agenda, and the carrot he often dangled in front of Christian leaders as he sought their support during the campaign, was a pledge to overturn a 1954 law that says houses of worship can lose their tax-exempt status if they engage in partisan campaigning.

“Should pastors endorse politicians from the pulpit?” Graphic courtesy of the National Association of Evangelicals

But a new survey of evangelical leaders — mainly pastors whose flocks were crucial to Trump’s victory in November — shows that close to 90 percent of those asked opposed the idea of clergy endorsing politicians from the pulpit.

“Evangelicals emphasize evangelism, and pastors often avoid controversies that might take priority over the gospel message,” said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, the organization that polled the 112 leaders in February.

“Most pastors I know don’t want to endorse politicians. They want to focus on teaching the Bible.”

“Our focus should be on the gospel,” George O. Wood, general superintendent of Assemblies of God, said in a statement released by the NAE. “If we begin to endorse candidates, then we are politicizing the church, diluting our message, and bringing unnecessary division among our people. It is sufficient that we can speak on issues without endorsing specific candidates for office.”

The Evangelical Leaders Survey showed that 89 percent said pastors should not endorse candidates from the pulpit. Some, however, said that the government should not penalize pastors who do endorse.

The survey is a monthly poll of the board of directors of the National Association of Evangelicals. The members include the CEOs of denominations and representatives of an array of evangelical organizations, including missions, universities, publishers and churches.

The survey suggests that evangelical leaders have stronger feelings on the issue than the population at large. According to a LifeWay Research poll conducted last year, 8 in 10 Americans (79 percent) said it is inappropriate for pastors to endorse a political candidate during a church service.

As both a candidate and then in the first weeks of his presidency, Trump vowed to – as he put it at the National Prayer Breakfast last month — “get rid of, totally destroy” the 1954 law, the so-called Johnson Amendment.

The law had never been a major agenda item for Christian conservatives. But white evangelicals embraced Trump’s candidacy for a variety of reasons and voted for him in record numbers — 8 in 10 told pollsters they cast their ballot for the Republican nominee — and effectively propelled him to victory.

Now that Trump is in office the issue seems to have faded from his agenda, perhaps in part because overturning the law may be more complicated and less effective than Trump seemed to believe.

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

30 Comments

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  • Goshes. They don’t want to endorse politicians.

    They also don’t wish to commit adultery, theft, visit prostitutes, grift the believers, vote for Grabby McPussy and encourage heir flocks of sheep to do so, attack gay people for existing, deny us participation in society, attack our families, attack our humanity, or any of the other things they don’t want to do.

    But somehow, they just end up doing it.

  • By inserting these 3 words – “pastors whose flocks” – this statement of yours is misleading and an oxymoron, David Gibson: “a new survey of evangelical leaders — mainly pastors whose flocks (81% of white Protestant evangelicals; edited) were crucial to Trump’s victory in November — shows that close to 90 percent of those asked opposed the idea of clergy endorsing politicians from the pulpit.” Otherwise kindly explain – which you avoided doing by inserting those 3 words – how 81% of the evangelical flock voted for Trump, while 90% of the evangelical shepherds oppose endorsing politicians like Trump.

    Well, here’s one explanation:

    “Vote counts conceal deep, painful fractures among the huge, diverse group of Americans who identify as evangelical Christians. Nothing makes this clearer than the unprecedented in-fighting among Christian leaders in the lead-up to the election. Many people in big, important positions staked their credibility on supporting or opposing Donald Trump; old allies turned against one another, and new upstarts gained fame.” (Emma Green, “The Evangelical Reckoning Over Donald Trump: White, conservative Christians voted for the Republican candidate by a huge margin, but this election revealed deep fractures among leaders and churches—especially along racial lines”, The Atlantic, November 10, 2016)

  • floydlee– Then you don’t think it was the Russian propaganda (lies), repeated again and again by the Republicans, and bought by some of the trusting but gullible public, that turned what in October looked to be a landslide for Clinton into a squeaker win for Trump. By the way, your phrasing makes it sound as if your opinion is a fact. Better to say “I believe Hillary….” You’ve demonstrated how “alternative facts” repeated enough become accepted as facts.
    Now with so many Russian sponsored pervers of fake news and trolls on the internet, it’s hard to tell who might be behind what you are reading. Remember, when it comes to judging the truth of something humans always lead with their bias and find facts to support it. The propagandists know that and play to your weaknesses.

  • I see two possibilities here: Either the evangelical pastors are playing by the rules currently in place, that allow churches to talk about religion in general, OR these pastors truly want to concentrate on the transforming power of Jesus Christ and not on politics! I believe it’s the later!

  • White evangelicals found Trumps blatant racism was far more appealing than the usual sectarian, anti gay and anti woman bigotry of their own candidates in the primary.

  • That’s one theory. “81% of the evangelical flock voted for Trump” because both have the same “blatant racism” attitude, values, etc.

    But if this is meant to be this other one theory of yours, Spuddie, that “90% of the evangelical shepherds oppose endorsing politicians like Trump” because both have the same “blatant racism” attitude, values, etc., well, then, America, there’s no hope for you if y’all think like Spuddie here. Crazy talk is what that is.

  • Generally speaking, the ~90% of evangelical preachers are right — endorsing particular candidates is almost always a bad idea. But the Johnson Amendment doesn’t just ban endorsing a candidate but OPPOSING one as well. And if you don’t think that opposing those in power at need isn’t a part of our religious leaders’ duties, you haven’t read your Old Testament prophets.

  • Not at all. That crowd has always been racist. But few political candidates were willing to pander to such interests in an obvious manner. Dog whistle racism of the past became air raid siren racist with Trump.

    Also the democrats fielded the worst candidate in their stable.

  • Why call yourself a church when you are really being a PAC?

    When allegedly religious leadership is indistinguishable from political leadership then it is simply using religion for the tax exemptions.

    If religious leaders and organizations want to play politics, then they play by the same rules as everyone else who does.

  • Oh please, already. Do you even believe you own fake news there, Tom?

    Remember, it was what FBI director Comey said, NOT what Vladimir Putin and his cyber-minions said, that train-wrecked Queen Hillary in the final weeks of her would-be Coronation.

    It was specifically Comey’s announcements that threw Hillary off her carefully calculated political endgame.

    (By the way, I hereby nominate Mr. Comey for the Presidential Medal Of Freedom for saving America from Hillary Clinton and Slick Willie too.)

  • The problem with your statement is the word “indistinguishable.” Certainly if the ONLY thing a preacher and his congregation is doing is trying to advance a political agenda, you can argue that it is a PAC instead of a church. But these days our religious leaders have, as best they can, taken on the prophetic as well as the priestly role. And the prophetic role has ALWAYS had a strong political dimension, the prophets’ condemnations aimed at the rulers and not just the people. So if, during the last election, a preacher was to point to the words of Micah:

    What sorrow awaits you who lie awake at night,
    thinking up evil plans.
    You rise at dawn and hurry to carry them out,
    simply because you have the power to do so.
    When you want a piece of land,
    you find a way to seize it.
    When you want someone’s house,
    you take it by fraud and violence.
    You cheat a man of his property,
    stealing his family’s inheritance.

    And then to say that such is Trump, and so such will be his fate and the fate of those that follow him:

    But this is what the Lord says:
    “I will reward your evil with evil;
    you won’t be able to pull your neck out of the noose.
    You will no longer walk around proudly,
    for it will be a terrible time.”

    Does that preacher cease to be a preacher? No, he becomes MORE of a preacher in that he has more firmly placed himself in the prophetic tradition.

  • The preacher in your example is doing identical work as any other election campaign worker. Intentions are self serving and subjective here. The actions themselves are what is important.

    It’s not acting like a church in any reasonable definition. It is not conducting worship service, sectarian religious training, or even charity work. If anything it’s an abuse of religious authority.

    If I call a coffee shop a church and have it managed by an ordained minister, I should be entitled to business tax exemption? After all, I doing the lords work in maintaining the spiritual and physical alertness of the congregation of customers. 🙂

    Excuses are a dime a dozen to pretend these religious groups are doing anything different from any other election campaign committees.

  • Right now Republicans are trying take food out of the mouths of poor children (including those of enlisted servicemen), freeze people to death, poison our air and water, increase tax burdens on working people, and take away health coverage. That is just based on bills before Congress at the moment.

    Profanity does not do justice to the vile nature of conservatives these days.

  • Running for-profit shops haven’t been an integral part of Judeo-Christian religious roles for three thousand years, speaking truth to power has. What you are asserting is that religious persons and organizations should forced to abandon that millennia-strong duty, because the State has declared that duty is no longer theirs.

  • Since the first Church was created, it started to have links to commerce and profit. You can call the activity anything you want and claim divine inspiration, but in the end it is just electioneering. Activity no different when done by campaign committees.

    You think changing how one describes an activity makes it something different. It doesn’t. It just means you are being less honest or objective than you should be.

    “What you are asserting is that religious persons and organizations should forced to abandon that millennia-strong duty, because the State has declared that duty is no longer theirs.”

    It is never their duty. In the past churches avoided such outright political campaigning because it undermined their reputation and standing. The separation of church and state makes such activity even more tasteless as it appears to be a deliberate sectarian power grab/prelude to discriminatory actions.

    Unless one is performing actual ministerial functions for religious practice, you aren’t acting like a church. Therefore you are not entitled to special treatment as one. The Johnson Amendment is about special treatment for churches,not basic rights.

  • Right, the primitive Church in Jerusalem immediately set out to become merchant princes — they certainly didn’t adopt charitable practices guaranteed to impoverish their people!

    As for speaking truth to power not being the duty of religious leaders, there’s Ezekiel 33: 2-9:

    Once again a message came to me from the Lord: “Son of man, give your people this message: ‘When I bring an army against a country, the people of that land choose one of their own to be a watchman. When the watchman sees the enemy coming, he sounds the alarm to warn the people. Then if those who hear the alarm refuse to take action, it is their own fault if they die. They heard the alarm but ignored it, so the responsibility is theirs. If they had listened to the warning, they could have saved their lives. But if the watchman sees the enemy coming and doesn’t sound the alarm to warn the people, he is responsible for their captivity. They will die in their sins, but I will hold the watchman responsible for their deaths.’

    “Now, son of man, I am making you a watchman for the people of Israel. Therefore, listen to what I say and warn them for me. If I announce that some wicked people are sure to die and you fail to tell them to change their ways, then they will die in their sins, and I will hold you responsible for their deaths. But if you warn them to repent and they don’t repent, they will die in their sins, but you will have saved yourself.”

    As for the separation of church and state, it is you that is demanding the government have the power to tell churches that unless they give up an age-old duty they are no longer churches. I cannot think of a more clear case of government interference with churches.

  • Your whole argument depends on the notion that any organization, as long as it claims some religious motivation doesn’t have to follow the same rules as others that do the same activity.

    You don’t need tax exemptions to engage in political lobbying. What you call speaking truth to power is no different than any election campaign in this instance. So there is no need to treat them in a special way here.

  • Just what do you think the 1st Amendment is for, but to put certain aspects of our social life as both individuals and organizations off-limits to state interference? So yes, when it comes to speech, the press, churches and religious practice, assembly to petition, laws cannot be applied to them that can be applied otherwise. A church does not cease to be a church because its pastor condemns or extols a politician from the pulpit, and the 1st Amendment says that the government cannot pretend otherwise.

  • I really get the impression you have no idea what the Johnson Amendment really does.

    Free speech dies not equal tax exempt activity. Electioneering is not religious practice, ritual or rites.

    If churches want to act like PACs try do not deserve the tax exemption privilege try enjoy. They can be treated like every other PAC. Same should go for their commercial ventures as well.

    But if they want the exemption, they are best to limit activities to those associated with those of only houses of worship. Tax exemption is not a right. It’s a statutory privilege. If churches want to play politics, they don’t need that exemption. They aren’t acting in a way to earn it.

  • But by declaring that a church whose pastor endorses or opposes a candidate by name from the pulpit loses the tax-exempt status that it has because it is a church, the government is either saying that the pastor is engaged in activity so harmful that it overrides the 1st Amendment (like shouting ‘fire!’ in a theater) or that it is no longer a church. Neither is supportable. There’s a good reason why the IRS has declined to prosecute the many pastors that have blatantly violated the Johnson Amendment, they must doubt their ability to win in court (if not the constitutionality of the law).

  • A church is not a place for electioneering.

    The first amendment has nothing to do with this. Tax exemption is a privilege. One earned by engaging in a narrowly defined class of activities. Electioneering isn’t one of them. A church which engages in electioneering is abusing the privilege. Frankly it undermines the democratic process to give religious organizations an unwarranted advantage in elections over other political groups. No need for it. It is bad for churches and politics.

    I guess any sense of rule of law goes out the window for some by invoking religion.

  • Does any sense of rule of law go out the window by invoking freedom of speech or the press? No. The same limits and strictures apply. So long as churches in general get tax exempt status, that status should not be revoked because a pastor acts the part of a pastor.

    Mind, if you want to argue that churches should not be allowed to donate directly to candidates, that might be a valid argument. If you want to argue that a church that spends MOST of the donations it receives on political activity is acting as a PAC instead of a church, that also might be a valid argument. But the Johnson Amendment goes beyond that — just having a pastor endorse or oppose a candidate from the pulpit, no spending required, violates that law.

  • Stumping for a candidate is not the role of a pastor in any conventional sense. Certainly not in the sense to be deserving of tax exemption privilege. If a church foregoes the roles associated with a house of worship, it doesn’t need to be treated like one. In fact your attitude makes for a good argument why churches should not be tax exempt at all. After all the only thing distinguishing them from a PAC or commercial venture seems to be motivations. The actions are the same.

  • Apparently you know what you know, there’s no point in confusing you with facts. Enjoy your choir.

  • There were no facts involved here. Merely spin and attempts to argue by reclassification. At least my choir isn’t trying to cajole me into voting their way.

  • The Johnson Amendment is toast, Doug. The IRS knows it and this is why they don’t enforce it to the extent necessary to carry a challenge to it all the way to the SCOTUS. Citizens United has already doomed it and CU isn’t going anywhere: “The Government cannot restrict political speech based on the speaker’s identity.”

    Government is not required to grant tax exemptions to churches. But if they do, they can’t remove it from a particular church as a penalty for the pastor exercising the right to free speech.

  • I think they should be free to endorse, or state opposition to any politician at all on the ballot. And, the fact is, they entirely are. What they are not entitled to is a tax exemption while doing so.
    There are quite a few liberal churches, primarily Hispanic-dominated Catholic and Mainline Protestant, who involve themselves in engaging officialdom through coalitions modeled after Saul Alinsky’s “Back of the Yards” neighborhood advocacy group in Chicago. They (legally) endorse issue propositions or oppose them (bond issues, city charter revisions, etc.) and hold candidate forums. This is appropriate. Candidate endorsement however is unethical and could result in tax exemption revocation, and quite rightfully so.
    Yes, there is historical and Biblical basis for engaging, but such comes about in extraordinary circumstances. The political Religious Right operatives have no justification for their attempts to employ religion to advance themselves as they do. They are by and large a criminal class as exemplified by the fixer Tony Perkins (talking head of American Family Association, a spinoff from James Dobson’s even shadier Focus on the Family) who colluded with Ku Klux Klansman and former Nazi David Duke in Louisiana politics.

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