By Rob Boston
In the run-up to last month’s elections, Americans United had to work overtime to combat church-based electioneering.
The Alliance Defense Fund and its allies in the Religious Right were working to persuade pastors to endorse or oppose candidates from the pulpit during Sunday services. AU repeatedly reminded pastors and congregants that such actions are a violation of federal law. Under the Internal Revenue Code, all 501(c)(3) non-profit groups are barred from intervening in campaigns by endorsing or opposing candidates.
That’s what the law says. But there’s another reason religious leaders should avoid such partisan intervention: The people sitting in the pews don’t support it.
I’ve been monitoring polls on this question for several years now. Every one shows solid opposition to pulpit politicking. Opposition in the high 60s or 70 percent is common.
But even I was surprised by a recent poll by Rasmussen. The New Jersey-based polling firm reported that “only 12% feel it’s appropriate for their local religious leader, such as a parish priest, minister, rabbi or imam, to suggest who they should vote for. Seventy-nine percent (79%) do not find such suggestions appropriate.”
The poll of 1,000 likely voters was conducted on December 17-18, and it contains some other interesting data about the intersection of faith and politics. For instance, the poll found that 48 percent of voters consider a candidate’s religious views as at least somewhat important in determining how they vote, while 53 percent don’t see them as important.
Interestingly, many political analysts consider Rasmussen to be a conservative-leaning pollster (although Rasmussen swears it is non-partisan). In any case, the question about pulpit politicking was pretty straight-forward. It read, “Is it appropriate for your local religious leader, like your Parish Priest, minister, Rabbi or Imam, to ‘suggest’ who you should vote for?”
If anything, the wording is a little soft. “Suggest who you should vote for” isn’t nearly as strong as “endorse a candidate” or “pressure you to vote for a certain candidate.” Yet people still chafed.
Why is this so? I think it’s because while most Americans respect their religious leaders, they see them as spiritual, not political, guides. In other words, a religious leader’s job is to tell you how to live a good life, how to follow the dictates of your faith and perhaps how to get into Heaven – not which candidate deserves to go to the governor’s mansion.
Also, there’s a certain arrogance in pulpit-based politicking. Pastors are essentially telling their congregations, “I will decide what issues should be important to you.” Most voters believe they are capable of making that decision for themselves.
As I said, pulpit-based politicking is illegal, and that alone is reason enough to stop it. The fact that Americans don’t want it is a nice side of gravy.