A recent report from the Pew Research Center found that, while pastors in churches often discussed politics and the 2020 election from last August through last November, very few religious leaders openly endorsed a political candidate. Despite the chaos of the 2020 election, which continues as some Republican legislators try to overturn the results, it seems that the Johnson Amendment is holding strong in American religious life. That is something to celebrate.
The Johnson Amendment is a federal law that protects the integrity of both our elections and nonprofit organizations, including houses of worship, by preventing nonprofits from endorsing or opposing political candidates. The law ensures that taxpayer money does not end up subsidizing partisan political campaign activities, and it protects houses of worship from the corrupting forces of partisan politics. The Johnson Amendment doesn’t prevent houses of worship or their faith leaders from discussing political or social issues. It draws a bold line between protecting the free speech rights of clergy and permitting taxpayer-funded political endorsement.
And in 2020, most churches respected that line. According to the Pew report, a negligible number of pastors openly endorsed either Presidents Joe Biden or Donald Trump. Explicit endorsements were so rare that Pew researchers could not build a reliable statistical model to identify endorsements across sermons. Considering families and friendships were torn apart by who supported which candidate, churches made the right choice by refusing to bifurcate their congregations over political differences.
The research does indicate that churches didn’t stay out of politics completely. Out of a sample of 535 congregations, 61 clearly favored one party or the other, split somewhat evenly between leaning left and leaning right. The data also indicates that 67% of churches gave sermons that mentioned the 2020 election at least once. These sermons ramped up in frequency as the election drew closer.
There were distinct differences between how denominations treated the election. Evangelical churches mentioned the election the most, occasionally couching it in language related to sin (evangelical pastors used the word “Satan” or “hell” nearly twice as much as other pastors), which no other group seemed to do, Pew found. Evangelicals also seemed to discuss racism in gentler terms, preferring “racial tensions” and using the words “crime” and “convict” during sermons discussing racism almost three times more often than clergy of other churches.
Pastors in historically Black Protestant churches, on the other hand, emphasized voting far more than pastors of other denominations did. Black pastors were seven times more likely to mention voter suppression, early voting and registering to vote than clergy in other congregations. Black Protestant churches were more outspoken about racism as well, using terms like “anti-racism” and “supremacy,” which were distinct to their sermons. These topics particularly appeal to their congregations, who, according to another Pew report, believe that topics such as race relations should be a priority during sermons.
All things considered; it seems like there is good evidence that most churches are following the Johnson Amendment. It is also encouraging to know that churches and clergy are urging their congregations to fulfill their civic duties. Alongside increasing voter turnout, historically Black churches worked hard to reduce vaccine hesitancy in early 2021, preaching the social gospel to keep their communities safe. Encouraging voting and vaccination are ways churches can further strengthen United States democracy from the bottom up. Alexis de Tocqueville would be pleased with the civic morality the churches are inspiring.