January 2020 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

A new poll shows that Americans do not want houses of worship to meddle in partisan politics.

The poll, released in November by the Pew Research Center, found that 76 percent of Americans say houses of worship should not endorse or oppose candidates during elections. This figure is in line with other polls that show strong opposition to politicized churches.

The poll also found that most Am­ericans reject the notion that houses of worship have too little influence over politics. Only 28 percent agree with that statement while 37 percent believe houses of worship have too much influence, and 34 percent say the amount of influence houses of worship have now is about right.

Results like this debunk one of President Donald Trump’s claims about the intersection of religion and politics. Trump has argued that Americans are clamoring for religious leaders to have the power to hand down lists of political endorsements from the pulpit. In fact, this new Pew poll and others prove that this is the last thing most Americans want. (Some polls show that opposition to pulpit politicking is even higher among many religious leaders.)

A federal law known as the Johnson Amendment protects the integrity of houses of worship and other nonprofit groups by keeping them out of partisan politics. Under the law, tax-exempt nonprofit groups may not intervene in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. (The amend­ment is named for its sponsor, then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson.)

Trump has repeatedly attacked the Johnson Amendment and sought to undermine it. During the 2016 campaign, he told pastors he would overturn the amendment, and in May 2017 the president issued an executive order he insists did away with the provision. But the order did no such thing and was merely verbiage. The Johnson Amend­ment is a federal law, and it can’t be wiped off the books by executive order.

Nevertheless, Trump continues to insist that he repealed the Johnson Amendment and has been making the claim during recent campaign rallies.

Vice President Mike Pence has also been spreading this piece of misinformation. Addressing a gathering of pastors in Kalamazoo, Mich., Dec. 4, Pence said, “And you all know, as ministers, that this president also believes that the freedom of speech should not end at the front door of your churches. And he took decisive action to end the enforcement of the Johnson Amendment and freed up the freedom of speech of pastors and ministers and rabbis, people of every faith in this country.”

Americans United has worked to keep the Johnson Amendment intact. In August 2017, Americans Uni­ted and its allies rallied more than 4,500 faith leaders to sign a letter to Congress expressing support for the Johnson Amendment.

Although Americans strongly oppose the mixture of religion and politics, they believe religion plays a positive role in society, the Pew poll found. Noted Pew, “On balance, U.S. adults have a favorable view about the role religious institutions play in American life more broadly – beyond politics. More than half of the public believes that churches and religious organizations do more good than harm in American society, while just one-in-five Americans say religious organizations do more harm than good. Likewise, there are far more U.S. adults who say that religious organizations strengthen morality in society and mostly bring people together than [those] who say that religious organizations weaken morality and mostly push people apart.”