President-elect Donald J. Trump campaigned in part on a vow to repeal the Johnson Amendment, a federal law that bars tax-exempt groups, including houses of worship, from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates.
But some new data from the Pew Research Center suggests that Trump’s plea may fall on a lot of deaf ears. Most clergy in houses of worship, it seems, avoided talking about the candidates and partisan politics this election cycle – probably because they know their congregants don’t like it.
Among voters surveyed who said they attended church at least once a month, only 14 percent said that they got information about candidates or the election from attending religious services.
And a mere 5 percent said religious leaders endorsed a candidate, while 6 percent said they got contacted by their church about the election.
While I wish the pulpit politicking was at 0 percent, this tiny percentage is still indicative of a problem. It’s estimated that there are 350,000 houses of worship in the United States, so thousands might have broken the law by endorsing or opposing candidates.
During his campaign, Trump made the Johnson Amendment a centerpiece for reaching out to the Religious Right. He claimed that the ban on church electioneering is a violation of the First Amendment, despite the fact that tax-exemption is a benefit that comes with some legal boundaries.
Most Americans don't want to talk about politics here.
“An amendment, pushed by Lyndon Johnson, many years ago, threatens religious institutions with a loss of their tax-exempt status if they openly advocate their political views,” Trump said while accepting the nomination at the Republican National Convention in June. “I am going to work very hard to repeal that language and protect free speech for all Americans.”
Trump’s often inflammatory rhetoric may have heavily influenced several other issues, but it doesn’t look like he’s getting much traction on church politicking. Repealing the Johnson Amendment remains an obsession of the Religious Right. Virtually no one else is for it.
Polls show that most Americans dislike pulpit politicking; they don’t want their pastors telling them how to vote.
A September report by LifeWay Research showed that 79 percent of Americans believe it’s inappropriate for a cleric to endorse a candidate during a religious service, while 75 percent are against their houses of worship endorsing a candidate under any circumstances.
Americans look to houses of worship as places to rise above the partisan divide. LifeWay Research’s Executive Director Scott McConnell noted, “Americans already argue about politics enough outside the church. They don’t want pastors bringing those arguments into worship.”
We hope that trend continues because it protects the integrity of houses of worship and prevents divisiveness.