A recent survey from LifeWay Research and Scott McConnell has found that while most Americans do not think pastors should endorse a political candidate during a church service, U.S. adults are more conflicted over whether ministers should do so away from the pulpit. At the same time, the number of Protestant pastors in the U.S. who have endorsed a political candidate outside of a church service in 2020 has increased since 2016.
“It may be hard for some Americans to ever see a pastor as being outside of their church role,” said Scott McConnell, who is executive director of LifeWay Research. “While every American is entitled to their political opinion, some people struggle to separate such personal comments from a pastor’s religious office.”
— LifeWay Research (@LifeWayResearch) October 27, 2020
Scott McConnell: Americans Want Politics to Stay Out of Church
From Sept. 9 to Sept. 23 of this year, LifeWay conducted an online survey of 1,200 pre-recruited Americans, a sample that “provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error from the panel does not exceed plus or minus 3.2 percent.”
Based on LifeWay’s findings, the majority of American adults believe it is not acceptable for pastors to publicly endorse a political candidate during a church service. Sixty-one percent said they disagree that it is appropriate for pastors to do so, and 47 percent said that they strongly disagree with such an endorsement. “Americans prefer for churches to remain religious sanctuaries rather than political rallies,” said Scott McConnell.
However, even though the number of Americans who oppose pastors making a political endorsement in church is a majority, that majority has been decreasing over the past several years. In 2008, LifeWay found this number to be 86 percent; in 2015, it fell to 79 percent.
But what about outside of a church service? Is it appropriate for pastors to publicly endorse a political candidate when the pastors are not acting in an official capacity? Only 39 percent of Americans said that an endorsement in this context would be inappropriate. Forty-three percent had no problem with it, and 19 percent were not sure.
LifeWay found a connection between people’s religious beliefs and practices and their answer to this question. Evangelical Americans and regular church attenders tended to be more willing to approve of pastors endorsing a candidate when acting outside of their pastoral role. These two groups were also more likely to agree with pastors endorsing a candidate during a church service, as well as to agree with churches using their own funds to support a candidate’s campaign. LifeWay also found that African Americans were more likely than Americans of other ethnicities to agree with churches endorsing a political candidate.
Political affiliation was another factor in how survey respondents answered. Republicans, as well as Americans who plan to vote for Trump, were less likely than their Democratic counterparts to have a problem with a church endorsing a political candidate. They were also less likely to see an issue with a pastor endorsing a candidate outside of the pulpit.
So what are Protestant pastors in the U.S. actually doing? Out of the pastors that LifeWay surveyed, only one percent said they had endorsed a candidate during a church service. Ninety-eight percent said they had not, and LifeWay says these numbers are consistent with research from 2016. Said McConnell, “The candidates endorsed by pastors may be local, state or national. But those who do so in an official church capacity are a rare exception.”
Regarding whether or not they have endorsed a candidate outside of their official role, 32 percent of Protestant pastors said they had. This number is up 10 points from 2016 when only 22 percent said the same. Put another way, in 2016, 77 percent of Protestant pastors said they had not endorsed a candidate in any context, but that number has dropped to 65 percent in 2020.
There was a connection between political affiliation and pastors’ decisions in this area. Pastors who support Trump were more likely to have endorsed a candidate outside of the pulpit. Pastors who support Biden were less likely to have endorsed a candidate, even when not acting in an official capacity, and were more likely than their counterparts to have encouraged their congregants to register to vote.
According to Scott McConnell, “Pastors are more decided on who they are voting for in 2020, so it’s not surprising that more pastors have shared their opinions with others personally…But there is not complete agreement across different groups about what is right.”