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Politics from the pulpit: Mostly nonpartisan, but not always

November 01, 2012|By Mitchell Landsberg
  • Rev. Rusty Cowden leads a Sunday service at the First Presbyterian Church in Warren, Ohio.
Rev. Rusty Cowden leads a Sunday service at the First Presbyterian Church… (John Moore / Getty Images )

There is, apparently, no escape from the presidential campaign. Most regular churchgoers say their clergy have been talking about the election, according to a new poll, although few appear to be endorsing candidates from the pulpit.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press said 52% of regular churchgoers have heard their clergy talk about the importance of voting in the election, but only 19% say there has been talk about specific candidates. Under federal law, houses of worship risk their tax-exempt status if they take sides in a partisan race.

Black Protestants, however, are far more likely than other groups to hear political talk from their pastor, the poll found. Forty percent said they had heard their pastor talk about a candidate, and in every case that candidate was President Obama, the survey found. Seventy-nine percent said their minister had spoken about the importance of voting -- a staple topic in African American churches since the Civil Rights era.

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White mainline Protestants (such as Presbyterians, Methodists and Episcopalians) were the least likely to hear talk of politics in church, with only 5% reporting that they had heard their pastors talk about specific candidates. Catholics and white evangelical Protestants were somewhere in the middle.

Aside from black Protestants, every other group reported that when a candidate was mentioned favorably in church, it was more likely to be Republican Mitt Romney than President Obama. Polls have shown Obama doing poorly among the most religiously observant Americans, with the significant exception of African American Protestants, whose support for him is well over 90%. 

Clergy frequently can signal their views on candidates by talking about issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, rather than about the candidates themselves. Knowing which side each candidate is on, churchgoers can connect the dots. Many evangelical churches provide handouts that show where the candidates stand on key social issues. But the poll found that the most common issues discussed in churches by far are hunger and poverty. Those topics were especially likely to come up in Catholic churches, which were also the most likely to discuss their opposition to abortion and threats to religious liberty.

Catholic bishops in recent months have undertaken a campaign against an Obama administration rule that will require some religious institutions to provide contraceptive services to their employees -- a mandate that the bishops have framed both as a "life" issue and as one of religious liberty.

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