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Americans split on pastoral endorsements away from church

Few pastors make political endorsements from the pulpit, but a growing number publicly back candidates when they step away from their church role.

Among U.S. Protestant pastors, 1% say they have publicly endorsed a candidate for public office during a church service this year, while 98% have not, according to a new study from Nashville-based LifeWay Research. Those numbers are unchanged from a 2016 LifeWay Research study.

Around a third of pastors (32%), however, say they have personally endorsed political candidates this year outside of their church role. That marks a 10-point jump from 2016 when 22% of Protestant pastors made an endorsement.

While the percentage of pastors endorsing politicians has increased in the last four years, most still avoid publicly backing specific candidates, even apart from their role in church. In 2020, 65% say they have not endorsed a politician. Three-quarters (77%) said the same 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,” said Scott McConnell executive director of LifeWay Research. “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.”

While the endorsements could have been for a candidate of any political office, 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%) and those undecided (10%) are less likely to have personally endorsed a politician away from their church role.

In one area of political activism, Biden-voting pastors are more likely to participate—registering voters.

Around a quarter of Protestant pastors (26%) say their church has worked to get people registered to vote in this year’s election. Pastors voting for Biden are more likely to say they have done this than pastors voting for Trump (34% to 22%).

Few want churches making official political endorsements or pastors doing so during a church service, but Americans are split on the appropriateness of pastors endorsing a candidate outside of their congregational duties.

Around 3 in 10 American adults (29%) say they are fine with churches making public endorsements of politicians. More than half (57%) are opposed.

As with pastors supporting the president’s reelection, Americans voting for Trump are more likely than others to see nothing wrong with pastoral and church involvement in political races. The same is true for Republicans compared to Democrats. (LifeWay Research)