image Are Churches Indistinguishable from Party Organizations?

By Paul A. Djupe

[Part 1/2; see Part 2; image credit: Alternet]

In “God’s Red Army,” Katherine Stewart reports that Christian Right groups are attempting to influence the midterm results with voter guides, microtargeting, and other efforts. A particularly important part of her account is the deep integration of evangelical pastors into the party’s efforts. Stewart writes, “[A]cross the country, it’s all but impossible to separate pastors from political operatives, parties from houses of worship, and the redemptive messages of theology from the slogans of partisan placards.” While there’s no doubt that Christian Right groups and supportive pastors are trying to influence the election, this account leaves out significant context that indicates that evangelical congregations are well short of a Christian Right GOTV machine.

Recent research can help us pinpoint exactly how common it is for evangelicals to hear about electoral politics from the pulpit. In our research from September 2016, just 9% of white evangelicals reported hearing their clergyperson speak out about Trump. By election day, 23 percent of white evangelicals reported their clergy spoke about Trump. Given that the 2010 Religious Census found that there are 191,122 evangelical congregations in the United States, that translates to explicit clergy politicking in between 17,000 (9%) and 44,000 (23%) evangelical churches. Furthermore, as Brian Calfano and I show in the first chapter in The Evangelical Crackup, even those 23% of evangelical clergy that engaged in explicit politicking were not seen as uniformly supportive of Trump, though they were on average supportive (mean 62.8 on this 100 point scale – significantly different [p<.01] than the mean of those who did not address Trump – 50.3).

These estimates put into context Katherine Stewart’s claim that, “The Faith & Freedom Coalition is working with 30,000 churches and aims to distribute millions of voter guides by Tuesday.” There is no way to tell if these are the same clergy and churches as reported in our studies, but the estimates are right in line with ours and suggest that 2018 is demonstrating continuity with 2016. Nevertheless, 30,000 churches represents just 17% of evangelical congregations in the United States. That’s a lot, but given that 70-80% of white evangelicals supported Trump in 2016, very clearly it is anything but impossible to separate churches from parties at this level of integration, even among one of the most politically homogeneous religious traditions in the United States. In short, it appears that influence from Christian Right interest groups is extensive, but far more limited than Stewart’s account suggests.

These findings accord with the consistent conclusion that explicit endorsements from clergy are rare (often in the single digits), including work by Corwin Smidt. In fact, despite President Trump’s use of the promise to repeal the Johnson Amendment to appeal to evangelicals, very few actually support that position. In a 2009 survey of Protestant clergy, the clergy most supportive of endorsing candidates were affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, but even then only 16% favored explicit endorsements. Moreover, their reticence makes sense because salient political disagreement does drive people out of churches. In short, it seems that many evangelical churches simply do not engage in direct advocacy for candidates, are content to outsource that advocacy to interest groups like the Faith & Freedom Coalition, or just cede the field to parties and other groups.

The next question is how extensive are voter mobilization and other political efforts in congregations? In Part 2 of this inquest coming tomorrow Jake Neiheisel and I will discuss the results of our paper out at Politics & Religion about the religious economics of congregational politicking.

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University Political Science, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.

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