Menu JTA Search

Survey: Most Americans Favor Clergy Speaking out on Politics

In contrast to what a majority believed a generation ago, most Americans now want to see churches speaking out on political and social issues, according to a new nationwide survey of religious identity and political opinion.

The change in attitudes reflects the growing role of religion in how Americans think about politics, the Pew Research Center for People & the Press said in a report on the survey, which was funded by the Pew Charitable Trust.

The poll was based on telephone interviews with 1,975 adults in early June and on interviews conducted between 1994 and 1995.

Fully 54 percent of those polled said churches should “express their views on day-to-day social and political questions,” while 43 percent preferred that churches “keep out of political matters.”

That constitutes a reversal from opinion held in 1968, when only 40 percent of Americans surveyed by the Gallup polling organization said churches should express political views.

While some observers see the change as evidence of a blurring of the line between church and state, it is not something that troubles Jewish institutions. In their sermons, religious leaders point out, rabbis frequently provide a moral perspective on a variety of issues facing society.

“I think it is only for the good of society if people of conscience are involved in political debates,” said Rabbi Lynn Landsberg, director of the Middle Atlantic Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Most clergy members, however, draw the line at endorsing a specific candidate or party, or specific ballot initiatives. Moreover, the Internal Revenue Service requires that religious institutions draw that line in order to maintain their tax-exempt status.

When asked whether “it is ever right for clergyment to discuss political candidates or issues from the pulpit,” 66 percent said no in the Pew poll, compared with 68 percent in a 1965 Gallup survey. Twenty-nine percent said yes in the current poll, up from 22 percent in 1965.

Only one of 14 people polled said a religious leader or group urged them to vote a particular way in the 1994 elections.

And only one out of seven said information on candidates or parties was made available in their place of worship before the election.

Among people who attended religious services at least once or twice a month, about one in five said a clergy member spoke out on candidates and elections, and 78 percent of those saw that as a good thing.

Black Christians proved most likely to hear a political sermon (47 percent), followed by white evangelical Protestants (20 percent), white Catholics (12 percent) and white mainline Protestants (12 percent). Statistics for Jews were not available.

Despite the support for politicking from the pulpit, evidence suggests that most Americans remain skeptical of their religious leaders’ advice.

Only 7 percent of those polled by Gallup in 1995 said their own religious leaders were most likely to influence their views. Three out of four said they instead looked either to the media or to family and friends for guidance in public affairs.

That does not mean religion still cannot help shape people’s views, religious leaders emphasize.

“I think most people want religion to speak to issues that they’re confronting,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Landsberg of the UAHC agreed.

“It’s almost expected that rabbis provide some kind of moral commentary to what’s happening on the front page of the paper,” she said. “I think that the synagogue is viewed as a moral compass in a lot of the political discussions and debates of the day.”

Meanwhile, the Pew poll found that white evangelical Protestants have emerged as one of the most powerful voting blocs in the country.

Twenty-three percent of Americans currently describe themselves as white evangelical, or born-again, Protestants, according to the survey. That places them on a par with white Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants.

Only 7 percent of those polled, however, described themselves as members of the “religious right.”

The number of white evangelical Protestants has been steadily rising in recent years, up from 19 percent in 1987 and 16 percent in 1978.

While there is diversity among those who identify themselves as white evangelical Protestants, as a whole they proved more consistently conservative, more Republican and more anti-Clinton than any other major religious group, the poll found.

It also said committed evangelicals are among the most politically active citizens in the country.

“The conservatism of white evangelical Protestants is clearly the most powerful religious force in politics today,” the Pew Research Center said in its report on the survey.

Jewish Americans, by contrast, are among the most Democratic and liberal- leaning of all religious groups, second only to black Christians, the poll said.

In comparison to other religious groups, Jews were far more likely to approve of President Clinton and disapprove of the Republican Congress. And on social issues, Jews proved more likely to hold traditionally liberal views, such as maintaining environmental protections, increasing government assistance to the poor and supporting gay rights.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. That margin is larger for subgroups.

NEXT STORY