Americans divided on pastors endorsing candidates; more pastors doing so in 2020

church of las vegas
Senior Associate Pastor Denise Goulet and attendees stretch out their hands to pray for President Donald Trump at International Church of Las Vegas, Oct. 18, 2020. |

While Americans are divided on whether it’s appropriate for pastors to personally endorse candidates for public office even outside of their church role, the percentage of Protestant pastors doing so has increased by nearly 50% over the last four years, according to a new survey by LifeWay Research.

Thirty-nine percent of Americans do not agree with pastoral endorsements even if it is outside their church role, according to the survey of 1,200 people conducted Sept. 9-23. Forty-three percent say it's appropriate and 19% are unsure.

Meanwhile, more pastors are endorsing political candidates, the survey found. Around a third of Protestant pastors (32%) say they have personally endorsed political candidates this year outside of their church role, which marks a 10-point jump from 2016 when 22% of Protestant pastors made an endorsement.

Only 1% endorsed a candidate during a church service this year. 

Most pastors still avoid publicly supporting specific candidates, even apart from their role in church, the study noted. This year, 65% say they have not endorsed a politician, down from 77% in 2016.

“Pastors are more decided on who they are voting for in 2020, so it’s not surprising that more pastors have shared their opinions with others personally,” LifeWay Executive Director Scott McConnell said. “The candidates endorsed by pastors may be local, state or national. But those who do so in an official church capacity are a rare exception.

“It may be hard for some Americans to ever see a pastor as being outside of their church role. While every American is entitled to their political opinion, some people struggle to separate such personal comments from a pastor’s religious office.”

The study found that pastors who say they are voting for Donald Trump are more likely to say they have made a political endorsement outside of church (45%). Pastors voting for Joe Biden (34%) are less likely to have personally endorsed a politician away from their church role.

The study found that 52% of Americans voting for Trump see no problem with pastors endorsing candidates away from the church, while only 40% of Biden voters and 36% of undecided voters agree.

Regular Christian churchgoers and those with evangelical beliefs are more likely than their counterparts to see nothing wrong with pastors making an endorsement outside their church role. They are also more likely than other Americans to be fine with pastors endorsing a candidate during a church service and churches using their resources to campaign for candidates.

African Americans (38%) are more likely than whites (28%) and other ethnicities (24%) to believe it is appropriate for churches to publicly endorse candidates.

While most Americans (61%) do not believe it is appropriate for pastoral endorsements to happen during a church service, that percentage is down from 86% in 2008. 

Forty-five percent of Americans believe churches that publicly endorse candidates for public office should lose their tax exemption.

“Americans prefer for churches to remain religious sanctuaries rather than political rallies," McConnell said. "While church support for politicians is seen as improper by most, Americans are less supportive of legal ramifications for such acts.”

Other findings show that Biden-voting pastors (34%) are more likely to participate in registering voters than pastors supporting Trump (22%). Around a quarter of Protestant pastors (26%) say their church has worked to get people registered to vote in this year’s election.

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