Religious Americans say their clergy frequently speak out on hot-button political issues, and sometimes even support or oppose specific political candidates.
A study from the Pew Researh Center found that nearly two-thirds of Americans who have recently attended religious services have heard their preachers discuss religious liberty, homosexuality, abortion, immigration, environmental issues, or economic inequality. Nearly half say their clergy have discussed multiple issues.
With so many political issues deeply tied to religious beliefs, that might not be surprising. But the study called attention to something that could be troubling: 14% have heard their preachers speak out in favour of or against a particular candidate.
Technically, that’s against the law. Churches and other tax-exempt organisations are not allowed to back or oppose political candidates, according to a 1954 amendment to the US tax code called the Johnson Amendment.
The report didn’t specify whether clergy supported or opposed candidates while actually in the pulpit, but if they did, their churches could face consequences.
“If a number of clergy got up and endorsed Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump … [and] if the IRS pursued that, it might revoke their tax-exempt status,” John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron and a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, told the Washington Post.
However, clergy are free to share their opinions on candidates on their own time, and nonprofit organisations can take positions on issues like poverty and crime.
But under the Johnson Amendment, Green said, political speech becomes a problem “when it’s a pretty clear endorsement of a candidate.”
The Johnson Amendment itself has long been controversial. The 2016 GOP platform calls for it to be repealed, and Donald Trump has pledged to make that happen if he wins in November. Religious liberty advocates have pushed to fight what they believe is a restriction on free speech through initiatives like the Alliance Defending Freedom’s Pulpit Initiative.
“The IRS doesn’t feed the hungry. The IRS doesn’t comfort the hurting. And the IRS definitely doesn’t heal the broken,” the initiative’s website states. “A pastor’s pulpit should be accountable to God alone, and the future of religious freedom in America depends on it.”
But even as it stands, the amendment doesn’t appear to be dissuading clergy from expressing support or distaste for this year’s candidates.
This is the first time Pew has asked this type of question, so it’s not clear whether clergy are speaking out more or less than in previous years.
But Claire Markham, Outreach and Campaign Manager for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress, believes that this particular election could be motivating political speech from the clergy because choosing between Trump and Clinton may seem like a moral choice as well as a political one.
“This is an unusual election,” she told Business Insider. “For many of the values at the heart of a number of religious traditions — welcoming strangers, focusing on the vulnerable, a specific care for economic quality — a lot of these issues are discussed seriously by both candidates [in other elections], and I don’t think that’s happening now.”
According to the survey, more clergy have spoken out in support of Clinton than Trump. This could be partially motivated by black churches, which have a history of being politically active. This election, 29% of black churchgoers heard their clergy express support for a candidate — almost always Clinton.
But even though the Pew study shows that clergy have more often embraced Clinton than Trump, religious conservatives tend to back Trump in part because he has supported policies that promote religious liberty — like repealing the Johnson Amendment.
“They [the Trump campaign] understand the importance of religious organisations and nonprofits, but religious organisations in particular which is what the Johnson Amendment affects, to have the ability to speak freely, and that they should not live in fear of the IRS,” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told TIME. “That is a priority in the platform, and from the Trump folks, it is a priority of the campaign, and will be a priority of the administration.”
But whether or not the Johnson Amendment survives, political statements from clergy are likely here to stay.
Churches are unlikely to actually get in trouble with the IRS if their clergy support or oppose a candidate, Markham said, because someone from the church has to complain, and then someone from the Treasury has to instigate an investigation.
“There’s a very specific process for enforcement…it’s rarely been brought to bear in recent history,” she said.
Anthony Gill, a professor of political science at the University of Washington, believes it’s against the interests of clergy to get political.
“That’s [supporting a candidate] dangerous for the clergy because if a clergy member endorses a candidate who turns out to be corrupt or tainted somehow, their reputation is diminished as well,” he told Business Insider. “A number of evangelicals run this risk with Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton — if anything comes out that these people are less than upstanding politicians, their endorsement is going to affect their reputation as well.”
And especially in places where churches play prominent roles, clergy could have a great deal of influence on their communities’ votes.
“Clergy tend to be individuals who cultivate a lot of trustworthiness,” Gill said. “It’s not surprising that people look to clergy for advice in the practical world.”
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