By Bob Smietana
NASHVILLE, Tenn.—In the 1950s, Congress banned charitable nonprofits—including churches—from endorsing candidates or otherwise intervening in elections.
Any nonprofit that violated the ban could run afoul of the IRS. Churches risked losing their tax-exempt status if the preacher endorsed a candidate in a sermon.
It’s time for that to change, most Protestant pastors say in a new survey from Nashville-based Lifeway Research.
More than 7 in 10 say Congress should bar the IRS from punishing a church for sermon content. And 9 in 10 say their sermons should be free from government oversight.
“Most pastors believe the pulpit should be off-limits to the government,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research.
Pulpit freedom is the main concern
The phone survey of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors, sponsored by the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), comes as Congress and the White House address the future of the so-called Johnson Amendment.
That 1954 law bans all 501(c)(3) nonprofits from active involvement in campaigns. It was passed at the behest of then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon Johnson, who was angered at Texas nonprofits that opposed his re-election bid.
Only one congregation has lost its tax-exempt status due to the Johnson Amendment. That happened in 1995, after the Church at Pierce Creek near Binghamton, N.Y., ran newspaper ads opposing Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential bid. Other churches have been investigated for the content of their sermons, including All Saints Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, after a preacher there criticized President George W. Bush days before the 2004 election.
Still, the IRS warns churches to steer clear of direct involvement in campaigns. And since 2008, the ADF has been challenging the restriction on endorsements through a series of annual “Pulpit Freedom” Sundays.
“Churches and their pastors have a constitutionally protected freedom to decide for themselves what they want to say or not say,” said ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “This poll demonstrates that religious leaders don’t want to be burdened by the continual threat of an IRS investigation and potential penalties based simply on what they say from the pulpit.”
Lifeway Research found widespread opposition to any government penalties for the content of a preacher’s sermons.
Ninety-one percent of pastors agree with the statement, “Pastors should have the right to speak freely from the pulpit without the fear of being penalized by the government.”
That includes 77 percent of pastors who strongly agree.
Six percent of pastors disagree. Three percent are not sure.
Among those who agree:
- 96 percent of pastors at larger churches (those with 250 or more attenders).
- 88 percent of pastors at small churches (those with fewer than 50 attenders).
- 86 percent of pastors ages 18 to 44.
- 93 percent of pastors 45 and older.
- 96 percent of evangelical pastors.
- 85 percent of mainline pastors.
Lifeway Research also found most senior Protestant pastors say Congress should end any IRS oversight of a pastor’s sermons.
Three-quarters (73 percent) agree with the statement, “Congress should remove the IRS’ power to penalize a church because of the content of its pastor’s sermons.” That includes 60 percent who strongly agree. Twenty-one percent disagree. Six percent are not sure.
Pastors of large churches (87 percent) are among the most likely to agree. Female pastors (49 percent) are among the least likely, as are pastors 18 to 44 years old (60 percent).
Among other findings:
- Pastors in the South (77 percent) are more likely to agree than pastors in the Northeast (66 percent).
- Evangelical pastors (84 percent) are more likely to agree than mainline pastors (58 percent).
- Baptist (86 percent), Pentecostal (93 percent) and Holiness (91 percent) pastors are more likely to agree than Lutheran (61 percent), Methodist (56 percent) and Presbyterian/Reformed (61 percent) pastors.
Little support for political endorsements
Previous Lifeway Research surveys found little support—from either pastors or Americans in general—for political endorsements in the pulpit. But few Americans want churches punished if a pastor does make an endorsement.
Eight in 10 Americans (79 percent) say it is inappropriate for pastors to endorse a candidate in church, according to a 2015 Lifeway Research survey. Three-quarters say churches should steer clear of endorsements. Yet fewer than half (42 percent) want churches to lose their tax exemption for publicly endorsing candidates.
A similar survey from the fall of 2016 found that endorsements during worship were rare. Only one Protestant pastor in 100 acknowledged endorsing a candidate during a church service. One in 4 (22 percent) had privately endorsed a candidate outside of a church service.
A Pew Research survey from the fall of 2016 found that 14 percent of Americans who attended worship services had heard their pastor speak out about a presidential candidate.
“Pastors—and Americans in general—don’t want church services to turn into campaign rallies,” said McConnell. “But when they do address political candidates, they don’t believe it is the government’s business. There’s very strong support for Congress to make sure the IRS isn’t policing sermons.”
Bob Smietana is senior writer for Facts & Trends.
The phone survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors was conducted Aug. 30 to Sept. 18, 2017. These questions were sponsored by the Alliance Defending Freedom. The calling list was a stratified random sample, drawn from a list of all Protestant churches. Quotas were used for church size. Each interview was conducted with the senior pastor, minister or priest of the church called. Responses were weighted by region to more accurately reflect the population. The completed sample is 1,000 surveys. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.2 percent. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.
Lifeway Research is a Nashville-based evangelical research firm that specializes in surveys about faith in culture and matters that affect churches.