At the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, President Trump made headlines by declaring that he would “totally destroy” a decades-old tax provision that prevents pastors and other religious leaders from endorsing political candidates. Some evangelical supporters have praised his statement, while opponents to the change are concerned that it signals an end to long-held provisions that ensure the separation of church and state. But even if the law is removed, churches and pastors may be unlikely to change how they engage politically — a majority of Americans don’t appear to want too much electoral politics in their church. We also have several surveys of clergy members showing the same thing.
The “Johnson Amendment,” a 1954 rule named for then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, authorized the removal of the tax-exempt status of charitable organizations, including religious organizations, that endorsed political candidates. For the past six decades, the Johnson Amendment has been enforced through custom more than legal action. There are very few legal cases involving pastors endorsing candidates from the pulpit, and the IRS has all but refused to engage in enforcement. A 2012 lawsuit from the Freedom from Religion Foundation revealed that the IRS had failed to hire an official to monitor church electioneering as agreed to in a 2009 lawsuit. A few religious advocacy groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom have championed “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” for pastors to protest these government restrictions, and Trump first began making pledges to end this IRS restriction during the campaign as an appeal to evangelical Christians.
But surveys of both the public and the clergy suggest opposition to pulpit endorsements. The question has been asked1 several times since 1980 — most recently in 2008 — according to the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research’s iPoll database. During that time, opinion was remarkably stable; a narrow majority of Americans (between 50 percent and 59 percent) opposed clergy endorsing candidates. The one exception came in 1984, when 77 percent said they were opposed to “priests, ministers and rabbis us[ing] religious arguments to endorse presidential candidates.” Outside of the iPoll database, LifeWay Research, a religious survey research firm, has found higher opposition to clergy endorsements — in 2008, 75 percent disagreed that it is appropriate for churches to publicly endorse candidates for public office. That number grew to 79 percent in 2015. It was even higher among Hispanic Americans (82 percent) in a 2011 Latino Decisions poll.
One might expect a strong response in support of repealing the Johnson Amendment from those who are its object — clergy. The survey data we have does find a strong response, but in opposition. In 2009, the Cooperative Clergy Study, organized by Professor Corwin Smidt of Calvin College, asked nearly 3,000 Protestant clergy members in nine denominations whether they approved of or engaged in political activities, including endorsing candidates from the pulpit. The most support for endorsing candidates (16 percent) came from Southern Baptist Convention pastors, followed by Pentecostal Assemblies of God ministers (13 percent). The other groups of clergy gave mostly low single-digit support. Similarly, just 4 percent of the religious leaders surveyed said they had ever endorsed a candidate from the pulpit, with somewhat higher shares among Southern Baptist and Assemblies of God clergy (11 percent of each). Other surveys have shown that hearing an endorsement is much more common among black Protestants, although their clergy were not included in this survey. (Note: We don’t have data among other clerics, such as Catholic priests, imams or rabbis.)
The public shows little support for clergy electoral politicking, the IRS has studiously avoided enforcing the prohibition, and clergy that we have data from disclose opposition to and almost no engagement in the practice. Why then is Trump talking about the Johnson Amendment? The answer is simple: It is valuable as almost purely symbolic politics. It rewards Christian right organizations and elites who have attempted to make this an issue in the past decade and in the recent election cycle. That doesn’t mean that clergy opinions and behavior won’t change if the law changes, but based on the evidence, we see that shift as unlikely. Clergy lead diverse, nonpolitical organizations, and bringing politics into the pulpit can cost them members on the margins.