Do religious leaders influence their congregants' political views?

Most American churchgoers say their clergy members haven't endorsed presidential candidates, but have spoken about political issues at least once over the last few months. 

John Adkisson/Reuters
Pastor Mark Harris of First Baptist Church gives his sermon during the fifth and largest 'Pulpit Freedom Sunday' in Charlotte, N.C., October 2012. American churchgoers say their clergy members speak more about political issues than presidential candidates.

The separation of church and state may be woven into the fabric of US government, but in presidential elections, at least, American clergy members don't exactly kept their churches completely separate from the state, according to a Pew survey released Monday.

The survey found that clergy members have not often brought politics to the pulpit in the last few months. Yet, when they have, religious leaders have focused on issues including religious liberty and homosexuality, and not on endorsements of candidates.

About two-thirds of American churchgoers said they heard their clergy speak about one of six issues — religious liberty, homosexuality, abortion, immigration, environmental issues, or economic inequality — during services in the spring and summer. Just 14 percent of churchgoers said they heard clergy members endorse – or speak against  – presidential nominees Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

The survey’s findings also reflect a trend among American churchgoers to care more about a candidate’s position on issues rather than a candidate’s particular religion. Though there is no comparable data to compare pulpit politicking in previous elections, the survey indicates clergy members might be reaffirming issues their congregants care about.

“Many religious voters are less worried about the specific religious affiliation of candidates than they are about those candidates’ positions on issues that matter to them as people of faith,” Amy Black, a political scientist at Wheaton College, an Evangelical institution in Illinois, told The Christian Science Monitor’s Harry Bruinius before the Iowa caucuses. “They are more likely to vote on issues and perceptions of who has the best leadership skills than they are on religious affiliation.”

Of the 4,602 adults who responded to the survey Pew conducted from June 5 to July 7, about 40 percent said they had attended religious services at least once or twice in the previous few months. The most churchgoers said their religious leaders spoke about religious liberties (40 percent) or homosexuality (39 percent) at least once during that time. But that was the exception.

A majority of respondents said clergy members never or rarely spoke about politics from the pulpit. Even fewer churchgoers said members endorsed or spoke against Democratic presidential nominee Mrs. Clinton or her Republican opponent, Mr. Trump. The exception was black Protestants. Three in 10 said their religious leaders spoke in support of Clinton or against Trump. In comparison, less than 1 in 10 Catholic, white evangelical Protestant, and white mainline Protestant said their clergy endorsed or opposed a candidate.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has forbid clergy members and churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates since 1954, when then-senator Lyndon B. Johnson submitted an amendment that restricted all charitable organizations, including churches and other houses of worship, from this practice. Whether or not that prevents leaders from doing so, more Americans care less about the religion of their candidates, and more how they align to their world beliefs.

“What matters most to a lot of evangelical voters is not Trump’s personal relationship with Christ, rather it’s his understanding of America and America’s place in the world,” Carter Turner, professor of religious studies at Radford University in Virginia, told Mr. Bruinius in January. “America, and American exceptionalism, is the overlap between Trump and Evangelicals. It’s not Jesus.”  

This trend has carried true through July. Nearly four-fifths of Evangelicals planned to cast their ballot for Trump in the November election, even more than Mitt Romney in the 2012 election, according to another Pew poll.

“Trump is not a true believer in any sense, both religiously and on the issues, but he’s speaking to them,” J. Tobin Grant, a professor of political science at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and a columnist at the Religion News Service, told The New York Times. “He’s actively courting them, and that’s what the activists want. They want to have a seat at the table, and they felt they didn’t have that with Romney.”

Clinton, meanwhile, has garnered the most support from Hispanic Catholics and black Protestants. But an emerging religious bloc that overwhelming supports Clinton are the church of “nones." This cohort that has no religious affiliation has grown rapidly in recent years, and now makes up about one-fifth of registered voters – about the same share of the electorate as white evangelicals, according to the Times. 

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