As America moves towards the final stretch of a tumultuous presidential election, a majority churchgoers reported hearing their leaders address political and social issues recently, though far fewer clergy focused on a particular candidate, according to a new Pew Research Center survey

The poll, which focused on recent attendees (the approximately 40 percent of Americans who reported being in church in the past few months) was conducted before the Republican and Democratic conventions and the multiple controversies that have erupted since then.  Four in ten of those in the pews reported hearing about religious liberty and homosexuality.  Three out of six congregants recounted hearing about abortion, with immigration a topic not lagging far behind. 

Approximately one-fifth of these churchgoers said they’d heard clergy speak about the environment or economic inequality.

A political science professor at the University of Akron, and a senior fellow with the Pew Center on Religion& Public Life, John Green says that he was particularly struck by the increased concern clergy are reported to have expressed about religion liberty.

That’s a fairly recent development, he says, and likely at least in part a response to the advent of the Affordable Care Act and the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage, he says. “There’s a concern that these new regulations might start to have an impact on faith-based organizations” says Green, who says that the survey data also gives researchers a window into the concerns of religious elite.

Because clergy often oversee not only congregations but affiliated organizations like charities and schools, they may be particularly concerned about the implications these new laws have on their congregations he says.   While clergy with a more “traditional” perspective, both Catholic and conservative evangelicals, are more likely to express apprehension about potential impact, it is also the case that clergy have a political view which may emerge in the pulpit.

Such polls tend to reflect, not the controversy du jour, but ongoing issues that affect congregational leaders, says Green. “They tend not to capture what was in the news last week, or the latest controversy” he adds, suggesting that respondents are sharing information about the political or social topics they believe that they are hearing about the most.

“It tells us what they think they heard” says Green.

He’s surprised that more respondents weren’t reporting more references to poverty and social justice from the pulpit, he says. “Give the debate of the last few years about economic growth, jobs and income inequality, it’s lower than I would have expected – it could be that either these issues aren’t being addressed or congregants are not reporting it because they hearing a lot of it.”

“We had asked questions before about whether clergy speak about certain topics in their places of worship, but previously didn’t necessarily specific examples of the kinds of things they might have talked about’ said Pew senior researcher Jessica Hamar Martinez.  “We wanted to dig into the topics some of them were hearing about during the campaign more broadly.’

Far fewer worshippers say that church leaders advocated for or came out against a particular candidate - though of that group, black Protestants were more likely to hear a specific endorsement, with Hillary Clinton receiving the most support (and Donald Trump the greatest opposition).  Fewer than one in ten Catholics, white evangelical Protestants or white mainline Protestants report hearing explicit support for a candidate.

A 1950’s-era law, named the Johnson Amendment after then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, bars all charitable organizations that accept tax-deductible contributions from endorsing or opposing a political candidate. ( Donald Trump says he would like to get rid of it. )

Green says that he wasn’t particularly surprised to see that some congregants in African-American churches reporting that their clergy endorsed a specific candidate, whether it’s in a national or a local election. 

Clergy, like anyone else have a right under the First Amendment to an individual opinion, so long as they don’t claim to speak for their congregation or denomination, he says. In fact, it’s possible that such an endorsement might have taken place in a setting outside the sanctuary.  “For as long as we’ve been asking these type of questions, African-American churches report more endorsements…. the church still plays a central role in the black community, and clergy are motivated to talk about the candidates as well as the issues” he said.  In other Christian bodies, he says there may be an “informal pressure” on clergy not to make an endorsement. 

While adults with other faith affiliations responded to the poll, says Martinez, their numbers weren’t great enough to analyze them separately.

While Pew doesn’t have a specific plan to repeat this particular set of questions in the immediate future, they are interested in observing whether these particular issues continue to surface in congregations, added Martinez, noting the short report covered a lot of territory.

“The reason this survey is important is that we are going to have a very contentious election” says Green, who suggested that many will be sharing and receiving information in social organizations and congregations – before they head to the polls.

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