NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As a hotly contested presidential election approaches, Americans strongly believe churches should tread lightly when it comes to political activity.
According to a survey released by LifeWay Research, Americans believe churches should not campaign for or endorse political candidates and pastors should only endorse candidates as private citizens outside of a church service.
The telephone survey, conducted in June 2008, considered the views of more than 1,200 adults randomly selected throughout the country.
"There is a longstanding and publicly affirmed view that the pulpit is not the place for politics, particularly endorsements," said Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research. "It would appear this view is still widely held in most sectors of society."
When asked for their level of agreement with the statement, "I believe it is appropriate for churches to publicly endorse candidates for public office," 59 percent said they strongly disagree while 16 percent somewhat disagree.
Young adults are much less likely than older adults to strongly oppose church endorsements. Thirty-seven percent of adults ages 18 to 29 strongly disagree that it is appropriate for churches to publicly endorse candidates, whereas 72 percent of adults above age 49 strongly disagree.
Similarly, single adults are much less likely than married adults to strongly oppose church endorsements. Forty-six percent of single adults strongly disagree that church endorsements are appropriate, but 62 percent of married and 66 percent of divorced, widowed or separated adults strongly disagree.
Church resources for political purposes
When it comes to how churches use their resources, Americans believe overwhelmingly that churches should not use those resources to campaign for candidates for public office.
When asked to respond to the statement, "I believe it is appropriate for churches to use their resources to campaign for candidates for public office," 85 percent disagree including 73 percent who disagree strongly.
Region of the country, marital status and age are among the factors that most sharply divide Americans’ opinions on whether churches should use their resources to campaign for candidates. In the East, 81 percent of respondents strongly disagree that it is appropriate for churches to use their resources to campaign for candidates. Only 66 percent in the South strongly disagree compared with 71 percent in the West and 75 percent in the Central region of America.
Single people strongly disagree with churches campaigning for candidates at a lower rate (54 percent) than married people (79 percent) or divorced, widowed and separated people (77 percent).
Young adults also are less likely to strongly disagree with churches using their resources to campaign for candidates. Forty-seven percent of 18-24 year olds strongly disagree compared to 84 percent of adults age 55 and older.
Significant differences exist among Christians as well, with 81 percent of Catholics strongly disagreeing with churches campaigning for candidates. Protestants who consider themselves born-again, evangelical or fundamentalist are less likely to strongly disagree with the practice (62 percent) than Protestants who do not claim these labels (74 percent).
Minorities are more likely than whites to agree with churches campaigning for candidates. Though only 9 percent of whites agree strongly or somewhat with the idea, 22 percent of Hispanics and 28 percent of African-Americans agree.
The issue of tax-exempt status
When the topic turned to whether churches that publicly endorse candidates should lose their tax-exempt status, a slim majority agree and differences appear along many of the same lines. (Churches that campaign or endorse candidates in violation of IRS prohibitions have been threatened with losing their tax-exempt status.)
Thirty-eight percent strongly agree and 14 percent somewhat agree "that churches who publicly endorse candidates for public office should lose their tax exemption." Twenty-five percent strongly disagree, 17 percent somewhat disagree and 6 percent are not sure.
The South is by far the region most open to allowing churches to endorse candidates without losing their tax exemptions. Southerners agree at a rate of 41 percent that candidate-endorsing churches should lose their tax exemptions compared with 58 percent in the East, 56 percent in the Central region and 56 percent in the West.
Older adults are twice as likely to strongly agree with churches losing their exemption for political endorsements as compared to younger adults. Forty-six percent of adults age 55 and older strongly agree that such churches should lose their tax exemption whereas only 19 percent of adults ages 18 to 24 strongly agree.
Marital status once again made a significant difference with 25 percent of singles strongly agreeing that churches that endorse candidates should lose tax exemptions compared with 41 percent of married people and 46 percent of divorced, widowed and separated people.
Protestants who consider themselves born-again, evangelical or fundamentalist (26 percent) are less likely than Protestants not claiming the born-again label (39 percent) to strongly agree with removing the tax-exempt status of churches that publicly endorse candidates. Almost half of Catholics (47 percent) strongly agree.
Those who rarely or never attend church, a mosque, synagogue or other places of worship are more likely than more frequent attendees of religious services to favor the removal of a church’s tax-exempt status for publicly endorsing a candidate.
"Americans overwhelmingly want pastors to stick to faith and not political endorsements," Stetzer said. "However, they are less certain that they want the government to strip them of their tax exemption. A majority do think such churches should lose their tax exemption, but a significant minority does not. Americans don’t want churches in politics but they are not as certain they want the government in the churches."
Endorsements by pastors: on your own time
When the question centers on pastors rather than churches, Americans are slightly more open to endorsement of candidates, but not when the endorsement comes during a church service.
Although more than half believe it is appropriate for pastors to endorse candidates for public office outside of the church, only 13 percent believe it is acceptable for pastors to endorse candidates during a church service.
Asked to respond to the statement, "I believe it is appropriate for pastors to personally endorse candidates for public office, but only outside of their church role," 31 percent of respondents strongly agree and 23 percent somewhat agree. Nearly 11 percent somewhat disagree, and 33 percent strongly disagree.
Regular attendance at religious services is perhaps the greatest distinguishing factor between those who support and oppose pastoral endorsement of candidates outside the church. While 61 percent of those who attend religious services more than once a week approve of such endorsements, only 38 percent of those who never attend said the practice was acceptable.
Regarding candidate endorsements by a pastor during a church service, respondents were asked whether they "believe it is appropriate for pastors to publicly endorse candidates for public office during a church service." Five percent strongly agree with the statement, 7 percent somewhat agree, 13 percent somewhat disagree and 74 percent strongly disagree.
Those attending religious services more than once a week are four times as likely to favor pastoral endorsements during a church service as those who never attend religious services. Twenty-three percent of more-than-weekly attendees agree with the practice compared with five percent of those who never attend.
The telephone survey was conducted in June 2008 among 1,208 adults randomly selected throughout the country in proportion to population. Weighting is used to adjust for non-response controlling for region, age, race, religion and gender. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the margin of error does not exceed +2.9 percent.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Roach is a freelance writer who lives in Louisville, Ky.)