The Religious Right makes it seem like nearly every pastor in America would endorse political candidates from the pulpit if only the pesky tax code didn’t prohibit it, but a new survey shows that couldn’t be further from the truth.

A poll released this month by LifeWay Research, which is the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, found a whopping 87 percent of Protestant pastors disagreed that clergy should endorse candidates in church. This is a slight increase from a December 2010 survey in which 84 percent of pastors said ministers shouldn’t do so.

But what about evangelical pastors, the wheelhouse of the Religious Right? An overwhelming majority of them (86 percent) said pastors should not endorse anyone from the pulpit. Even 82 percent of pastors who identified as Republicans felt such endorsements are wrong (compared with 98 percent of pastors who identify as Democrats).

When it comes to personal endorsements made by clergy away from the pulpit, which is not a violation of federal tax law for 501(c)(3) organizations, many pastors still expressed reluctance. LifeWay found that 52 percent of the 1,000 pastors surveyed have not endorsed candidates this year even outside of their ministerial capacity. 

The survey was taken ahead of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” an annual stunt staged by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an Arizona-based legal outfit founded by radio and TV preachers. Since 2008, the ADF has encouraged pastors to endorse or oppose candidates for office in the hope that the IRS will revoke the tax exemption of a church. This would then allow the ADF to challenge that pulpit politicking prohibition in court in the hope that it would be found unconstitutional.

To date, the ADF hasn’t achieved its goal, but it did claim a record number of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” participants this year with more than 1,500. But less than two weeks later, the leader of a South Carolina megachurch (that averages about 16,000 attendees on weekends) slammed the whole idea of preachers telling their flocks how to vote.

In a scathing piece on his personal website, Pastor Perry Noble of NewSpring Church said “it’s never pretty when the church crawls in bed with politics.”

Noble went on to explain that anyone who seeks salvation from a politician is looking in the wrong place.

“I have a question for Republicans and Democrats alike…how is putting your hope in a political savior going for you?” Noble asked. “Four years ago the nation was captivated by Barack Obama, a man who promised ‘hope’ and ‘change.’ Here we are four years later, the housing market has not recovered, the unemployment rate is still hovering around 8% and like it or not America is considered weak when it comes to foreign policy.”

Noble then questioned whether anyone genuinely believes “a Romney victory is going to save the direction of this country?” Given that many evangelicals think Mormonism is a cult, I’m betting they don’t actually have high hopes for Romney.

Ultimately, Noble concluded, “The more I read Scripture the more it is obvious that when the people of God depend on a political savior rather than a heavenly one the result is always disappointment.

“All too often churches are seemingly becoming obsessed with our government passing legislation regarding abortion, homosexual marriage and other hot button topics, believing that the passing of a particular law will somehow stop the downward spiral our country is obviously on,” Noble said. “The REAL issue the church has been called to deal with is the condition of the human heart. Yes, our country is in desperate need of change…but the kind brought about when God’s grace collides with our sinfulness.”

Those comments are among the best and most direct condemnation by a pastor in recent memory of the entire Religious Right movement in the United States. That they came from the leader of a southern megachurch is extremely important and powerful.

What Noble’s words and the LifeWay survey show are that the Religious Right is fighting a misguided battle on behalf of a small segment of the population. That doesn’t mean the Religious Right isn’t powerful or shouldn’t be taken seriously, but it shows that a very small number of people are trying to control the lives of hundreds of millions who disagree with their principles.

This is why it is so important to stand up to the Religious Right, and why Americans United works so hard, every day, to oppose those who think they have the right to control everyone else.