NASHVILLE, TN -- A new survey by LifeWay Research indicates that 61 percent of Protestant pastors disapprove (47 percent strongly) of President Barack Obama's job performance. Yet they remain opposed to pulpit endorsements of political candidates.
The survey, conducted by phone Oct. 7-14, found that 30 percent of Protestant pastors approve of the president (14 percent strongly) and 9 percent are undecided. Among Americans at large, however, Gallup reported Oct. 21 that the president's average seventh-quarter approval rating stands at 44.7 percent -- its lowest point since Obama took office but still significantly higher than among Protestant pastors.
Perhaps not unexpectedly, the president's approval rating is higher among Protestant pastors who self-identify as Democrats -- 47 percent of them strongly approve of his job performance as compared to only 3 percent of pastors who regard themselves as Republicans and 10 percent of Independents.
Additionally, differences emerged between pastors who consider themselves "evangelical" and those who self-identify as "mainline." Fifty-five percent of evangelical pastors strongly disapprove of Obama's job performance compared to only 34 percent of mainline pastors.
These current approval numbers echo the amount of support Obama had from pastors going into his election, shown by an Oct. 30, 2008, LifeWay Research survey examining Protestant pastors' voting intentions. At that time, 20 percent of Protestant pastors indicated they intended to vote for Obama, 55 percent planned to vote for Republican candidate John McCain and 22 percent remained undecided.
"If half of the undecideds eventually broke for Obama, he would have earned about 31 percent of pastors' votes," said Ed Stetzer, vice president for research and ministry development at LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. "Today, the president has 30 percent of Protestant pastors approving, at least somewhat, of his job performance.
"If voting intentions and job approval measure similar things, the president hasn't made many friends in the pulpits of America's churches throughout the first year and a half of his presidency," Stetzer said.
Although Protestant pastors clearly maintain personal political opinions, 84 percent disagree (70 percent strongly and 14 percent somewhat) with the statement, "I believe pastors should endorse candidates for public office from the pulpit."
For comparison, LifeWay Research found in a June 2008 survey that 75 percent of American adults disagreed (59 percent strongly) with the statement, "I believe it is appropriate for churches to publicly endorse candidates for public office." Also in the October 2008 study, less than 3 percent of Protestant pastors agreed that they had publicly endorsed candidates for public office during a church service that year.
"We know that pastors have strong feelings when it comes to political candidates and their job performance," Stetzer said. "But each week when they step into public pulpits in front of sometimes thousands of congregants, the vast majority of those pulpits remain silent on advising others how to vote."
Party affiliations again reveal differences in opinion on this issue. Among pastors who call themselves Democrats, 84 percent strongly disagree, as compared to 61 percent of Republicans, that political endorsements should be made from the pulpit.
Also, mainline pastors, at 79 percent, are more likely than evangelical pastors, at 65 percent, to strongly disagree that endorsements should be made from the pulpit.
Methodology: The LifeWay Research study among Protestant pastors was conducted by phone Oct. 7-14, 2010. Churches were selected randomly and each interview was conducted with the church's senior pastor, minister or priest. Size of church was controlled through interview quotas and church location through statistical weighting to represent all Protestant churches. The sample of 1,000 provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed +3.2 percent for the total sample. Margins of error are higher in subgroups. The 2008 voting intentions survey was conducted by phone in October 2008 among 864 Protestant pastors and the June 2008 survey of Americans included 1,208 adults randomly selected throughout the country in proportion to population.