A New Study Underscores The Dangers Of Partisanship In America’s Pulpits

A new study of more than 130,000 American clergy finds that faith leaders tend to be more partisan than the congregations they’re leading.

That finding should give pause to those who seek to weaken or repeal the Johnson Amendment – a provision in the tax code that protects the integrity of our tax-exempt organizations, including houses of worship, by ensuring they do not endorse or oppose political candidates. Changing the law could divide congregations – especially if a pastor endorses a candidate congregants don’t support.

Researchers Eitan Hersh, a former Yale political scientist who’s heading to Tufts University, and Gabrielle Malina, a Harvard graduate student, this week released the results of their research, titled “Partisan Pastor: The Politics of 130,000 American Religious Leaders.” By compiling the voter registration records of Christian and Jewish faith leaders from 40 denominations, the duo compared party and denominational affiliations.

They found that pastors of liberal-leaning denominations are even more likely to be registered as Democrats than their congregations, and the same is true of conservative-leaning denominations having faith leaders registered as Republicans.

The most liberal clergy are found among the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism and three Protestant denominations: African Methodist Episcopal, Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ. The most conservative are drawn from Church of God, Brethren, Independent Baptist denominations and independent churches that employ terms like “evangelical” and “fundamentalist.”

Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Methodist faith leaders are the religious equivalent of “swing states” as their political affiliation tended to be the most mixed, according to the study.

While a faith leader’s denomination may be a good indicator of their political leanings and vice versa, the same is not as true of congregations, the researchers note.

“Very few people who attend church (fewer than 20%) say that they chose their congregation for its political or social views,” Hersh and Malina wrote. “More than twice as many claim that the style of worship or the preferences of their spouse were important to their decision. Such statistics suggest that the political climate of a church is likely to matter less to people when choosing a congregation than other factors.”

Faith leaders tend to be more partisan than their congregations – another reason why pulpit politicking is a bad idea.

The findings confirm what AU has known for a long time: Most people don’t go to church to talk about partisan politics. A recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute noted 71 percent of Americans – including majorities of major faith groups – don’t want churches endorsing political candidates. And while pastors may have strong political leanings, even they don’t support pulpit politicking: A recent National Association of Evangelicals survey found 90 percent of evangelical leaders didn’t want to endorse candidates from the pulpit.

Under the current law, pastors have robust free speech rights to voice their thoughts on political and social issues. Faith leaders can sign this letter to let Congress know how the Johnson Amendment supports the important role they play in community discourse. It reads in part, “Faith leaders are called to speak truth to power, and we cannot do so if we are merely cogs in partisan political machines. The prophetic role of faith communities necessitates that we retain our independent voice.”

The broad public support for the Johnson Amendment’s protections demonstrates most people understand that weakening this law would put organizations at risk of being turned into the tools of political campaigns and distract from their ability to fulfill their missions.

Yet President Donald J. Trump, a few members of Congress and supporters who are looking to boost their own political power are advocating to weaken or repeal the Johnson Amendment. Just last week Trump again mentioned his vow to “get rid of and totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment.

That’s why it’s important for you to tell Congress now that you don’t want the law to change. Please sign our petition, which notes changing the Johnson Amendment “is an extremely unpopular and unwise idea. Americans do not want our charities and houses of worship to be torn apart by partisan campaign politics. In addition, taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize the partisan election activities of these organizations.”

For more information about the Johnson Amendment and what you can do to protect it, visit AU’s Project Fair Play.