Churchgoing Americans say their preachers often speak out on hot social and political issues and occasionally back or oppose particular candidates in defiance of U.S. law prohibiting such endorsements.
The findings from a new survey by the Pew Research Center suggest that the 1954 “Johnson Amendment” regulating political activity by churches and other charitable organizations has had limited impact in restricting such speech.
The 2016 Republican platform calls for a repeal of the Johnson Amendment, and GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has promised that if elected he would work to have the law overturned.
The law, which applies to any tax-exempt charitable organization, bars such groups “from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” Organizations that violate the ban could lose their tax-exempt status.
Some church groups have vigorously opposed the restriction as an infringement on freedom of speech. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative Christian advocacy group, has encouraged pastors to deliberately preach politically oriented sermons on specified “Pulpit Freedom Sundays” in an effort to protest the law and provoke a court challenge.
In practice, the IRS has made minimal efforts to endorse the statute, in part because the wording of the law is somewhat vague. According to the ADF, no church has yet been punished under the terms of the law.
The new Pew survey reports that nearly two out of three churchgoing Americans have heard their clergy speak out on at least one social or political issue, from same sex marriage to economic inequality and immigration. That type of advocacy is generally not restricted by the Johnson Amendment.
A much smaller share of churchgoers, 14 percent, say they have heard their pastors endorse or oppose a presidential candidate in the months leading up to the survey.
Black Protestants were most likely to report such statements, with 29 percent saying they heard pulpit endorsements, mostly of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, or specific denunciations, mostly of Trump. Only about one in 10 Catholics, white evangelical Protestants and mainline Protestants say their clergy have opposed or supported particular candidates.