About that Pew survey on politics and the pulpit: So what makes an issue POLITICAL?

Many Americans Hear Politics From the Pulpit

That was the takeaway from a recent national survey of thousands of churchgoers by the Pew Research Center.

This was the lede from Religion News Service:

(RNS) Most American churchgoers are hearing politics from the pulpits of their churches during this presidential election season, according to a new survey.
Nearly two-thirds of the respondents (64 percent) in the survey released Monday (Aug. 8) by the Pew Research Center say their clergy have spoken about at least one political or social issue in the spring and early summer.

And from the Los Angeles Times:

At wedding receptions, barbershops and on park benches, this year's unusual presidential campaign is often an unavoidable topic of discussion.
As usual in presidential races, it's also seeping into houses of worship across the nation. 

From Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton, and from abortion to immigration, many Americans are hearing politics from the pulpit, according to a survey released this week by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. 

But here's my question: Are Americans really hearing political issues from the pulpit?

Obviously, a pastor urging a congregation to vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or another candidate — that's political. But according to Pew, only 14 percent of churchgoers "say they heard their clergy speak directly in support of or against a specific presidential candidate in the months leading up to the survey."

Specific issues characterized as political by the Pew survey: Religious liberty. Homosexuality. Abortion. Immigration. The environment. Economic inequality. 

Do U.S. politics have a patent on those issues? Or would any of those issues be considered relevant in a church setting outside the political realm — say, in a normal context of Bible study? If so, is it fair to label such topics simply as political issues? After all, these issues are clearly linked to centuries of Christian doctrine.

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece for Christianity Today's Church Law & Tax publication on "Avoiding the Elephant (or Donkey) in the Pulpit." That story (mostly hidden behind a paywall) focused on how pastors can preach on the important matters of the day without becoming too political or risking a church's tax-exempt status:

The expansion of government’s role in society has made preachers’ balancing act more difficult, said Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, who hosts “The Briefing,” a daily analysis of news and events Christian worldview.
“To talk about any number of issues today is to involve politics in a way that would not have been true in generations past,” Mohler said. “Talking about healthcare or an adoption ministry or a ministry to orphans — none of that would have been overtly political even 30 or 40 years ago. But it is today because of increasing role in those areas.”

Another relevant chunk of my CT report:

Dean Inserra doesn’t back down from preaching on political issues. Neither does Inserra, founding pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida, believe in partisanship from the pulpit.
How exactly does the 35-year-old pastor manage to address politics without becoming partisan?
“I’m unashamed and quick to speak on issues,” the Southern Baptist pastor said, suggesting that cultural concerns such as racial reconciliation, immigration, sexuality, and poverty “are spiritual issues before they’re
“If we stay in the Word, two things are going to happen,” Inserra said. “One, we won’t be able to avoid speaking on political issues because they’re listed throughout Scripture. Two, we’re not going to be accused of being partisan or political because even our biggest critic will have to conclude . . . that we’re just teaching what the Bible says.”

The tax-exempt issue comes into play with the Johnson Amendment, which — as noted by RNS — "both Donald Trump and the Republican Party platform have said they want to repeal."

According to an essay by religion specialist Emma Green of the Atlantic, "Trump Wants to Make Churches the New Super PACs":

As highlighted recently by GetReligion's Richard Ostling, Atlantic articles feature "a strong point of view from a single bylined writer," and this one on the Johnson Amendment is no exception. It's certainly thought-provoking, but it's an not impartial treatment of the subject matter.

What is the Johnson Amendment?

Here's how I described it in my piece:

The Johnson Amendment — named for then-Texas Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson — was added to the IRS code in 1954. The amendment prohibits churches from intervening in election campaigns on behalf of candidates, said Corwin Smidt, a research fellow for the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “To do so risks the loss of the church’s tax-exempt status,” Smidt said. “Though the amendment was largely uncontroversial at its inception, it has become, in more recent years, somewhat more contentious.” ...
Despite the code, clergy members enjoy the same rights as other citizens, Smidt said. “Should they wish to do so, they are free to place yard signs in support of candidates on the lawns where they reside,” he said of pastors. “The issue is where and in what context they choose to make such expressions of support. What the amendment prohibits is clergy endorsing specific candidates or political parties from the pulpit. What is less clear is the expression of support or opposition to specific pieces of legislation from the pulpit.”

So can a pastor endorse a candidate away from the pulpit? The Atlantic seems to take a stronger stance against that idea than Smidt. This is from Green's piece:

Yet even beyond purposeful protests like Pulpit Freedom Sunday, religious leaders seem to openly defy the ban on participating in political activities. The televangelist Mark Burns has openly stumped for Trump, as has Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. And at the start of the Democratic National Convention, the Decatur, Georgia, pastor Cynthia Hale prayed for Hillary Clinton to become president. Even if the IRS would not see these actions as formal violations of the law, the difference between pastors electioneering and speaking as private citizens “is a fine distinction that is easily evaded,” said Galston.

Two-plus months from the general election, there seem to be plenty of potential angles for journalists to explore concerning politics and the pulpit.

Among those issues:

• What actually makes an issue political?

What can a pastor can say inside a church building and outside of it?

• What would the real ramifications of repealing the Johnson Amendment be?

Surely there are others. Feel free to offer your suggestions in the comments section or by tweeting us at @GetReligion.

Stay tuned.

Please respect our Commenting Policy