While many Protestant pastors may endorse candidates for public office outside of the church, most say endorsements should not be made from the pulpit, according to a new survey.
Eighty-seven percent said pastors should not endorse candidates from the pulpit, LifeWay Research found. Only 10 percent believe such endorsements should be made. Meanwhile, 44 percent personally endorsed candidates this year outside of their church role.
"Clearly most pastors have opinions on who the best candidates are, and those convictions may be heavily dependent on biblical principles," Scott McConnell, director of LifeWay Research, said in a statement. "However, very few pastors choose to make those endorsements from the pulpit."
LifeWay surveyed 1,000 Protestant pastors in May 2012. The results were released Monday, just weeks ahead of the November presidential election.
According to the survey, evangelical pastors were slightly less likely to discourage endorsement of a candidate from the pulpit compared to mainline Protestant pastors (86 vs. 91 percent). Pastors affiliated with the Republican Party (82 percent) were also less likely to say political endorsements should not be made from the pulpit, compared to independents (90 percent) and Democrats (98 percent).
Additionally, pastors in the South (84 percent) were least likely among fellow preachers from other regions to oppose pulpit endorsements.
Despite the majority disapproval of endorsements, hundreds of pastors throughout the country are expected to directly address political issues and where the candidates for public office stand on Sunday, Oct. 7, as part of Pulpit Freedom Sunday.
The initiative was created by Alliance Defending Freedom five years ago and participation has been growing. This year, more than 1,200 pastors in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have registered to participate. The goal of the initiative is not to turn churches into political machines, organizers say, but rather to declare that sermons should not be regulated by the government, or in this case the IRS.
ADF argues that pastors should not be intimidated or silenced by the 1954 Johnson Amendment, which states that tax-exempt organizations cannot "participate in, or intervene in ... any political campaign on behalf of – or in opposition to – any candidate for public office."
McConnell of LifeWay cited previous research in pointing out that pastors believe the government has no place "in determining what is and is not said from their pulpits regarding candidates." But most pastors draw the line when it comes to pulpit endorsements.
While it is not clear whether all the participating pastors will specifically endorse a candidate, ADF is not discouraging pulpit endorsements. Jim Garlow, senior pastor of Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, Calif., said he plans to make the case of why a follower of Jesus Christ "wouldn't possibly want to vote for a candidate who's intentionally and knowingly against biblical truth."
In support of the initiative, Garlow commented recently, "I would contend that all the problems we've had since then – the removal of prayer from school, abortion, redefining marriage, massive debt – stems from the silence in the pulpit to speak to community and national life. The pastor is the moral compass of the entire culture and we have lost our freedoms."
Notably, none of the pastors that participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday over the last five years have been contacted by the IRS.