The November election is likely to be an intense, brutal fight to the finish, with the Republican candidate Donald Trump needing all of the friends and supporters he can muster. As was evident by his recent statements at the historical “Conversation” event in New York City, where he spoke about religious liberty and related matters to more than 1,000 evangelical leaders, he is counting on widespread support from conservative Christians and their churches in his battle for the presidency.
A new national survey among theologically conservative Protestant pastors, however, suggests that Mr. Trump may be counting on assistance that is not likely to materialize. The survey, conducted by the American Culture and Faith Institute, found that conservative pastors are likely to personally support the presumptive GOP candidate but unlikely to call their churches to participate in a meaningful way in the 2016 election process.
Perceptions of the Election
By a two-to-one margin the conservative pastors interviewed felt that Mr. Trump is likely to defeat the presumptive Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton (44% vs. 22%, respectively). However, the uncertainty of pastors about the likely outcome in November was demonstrated by the fact that one-third of them (35%) said they did not know who is most likely to win.
As for their personal preference, conservative pastors prefer Mr. Trump over Mrs. Clinton by a 6-to-1 ratio (60% for Trump, 10% for Clinton). Once again, the indecisiveness of conservative pastors was on display, with 30% opting for choices other than the two major candidates. Among those pastors, 13% claimed they would probably vote for a third-party candidate, 6% said they would refuse to vote, and 11% were still making up their mind.
Each pastor was asked about eight specific courses of action they could take in the remaining months before the election. Pastors were asked if they had done each of those activities during the 2014 mid-term election cycle and which, if any, of those activities they planned to engage in during the 2016 presidential election cycle.
The bottom line result is that there was not a single activity in which a greater number of conservative pastors planned to engage during this major election year as compared to their limited levels of participation during the last mid-term election.
The behaviors fell into three categories when comparing the restrained involvement of conservative churches in 2014 with what they plan to do in 2016.
Huge Declines in Participation:
There was a 16 percentage-point decline registered for each of two specific election-related behaviors.
In 2014, more than three-quarters of theologically conservative pastors (78%) encouraged their congregants to vote. Less than two-thirds – just 62% – plan to do so this year.
Similarly, slightly more than one-third of theologically conservative pastors (37%) attempted to educate their people about the mid-term race by preaching sermons that taught the biblical principles underlying how to think about one or more of the issues relevant to that year’s campaign. Barely half as many – only 21%, or one out of every five pastors – plans to teach the biblical foundations for positions on issues relevant to the 2016 election cycle!
Significant Drops in Participation:
The study revealed an anticipated 9 percentage point decline in engagement pertaining to each of three possible actions.
In 2014, not quite half of the theologically conservative churches (45%) distributed voter guides or information about access to online voter guides to members of the congregation. The number of conservative churches likely to do so in the 2016 election has fallen to just 36%.
Pastors at about three out of ten conservative churches (29%) encouraged church members to get actively involved in a campaign in 2014. However, that proportion is poised to drop even further this year, with only two out of every ten conservative pastors (20%) planning to exhort their members to take part in the campaign process.
Only two out of every ten conservative churches (21%) had a voter registration drive in 2014. Yet barely half as many conservative churches (12%) can be expected to do so this year.
Low Levels of Participation Remaining Unchanged:
Three particular activities were undertaken by less than one out of every ten conservative churches in 2014. Those included having an active process for getting people out to vote on election day (9%); inviting candidates to speak to the congregation (5%); and placing some election-related information on the church website (5%). Based on the responses of pastors, those minimal levels of participation are expected to be roughly the same in the 2016 election.
See accompanying data table for more information.
Pastors Are Speaking Loud and Clear
The survey results were deemed “nothing less than astounding” by researcher George Barna, who directed the survey for the American Culture & Faith Institute.
“In an election year where nothing has been normal so far, the apparent choices of conservative pastors may be the most abnormal thing of all. This is clearly a time when Christian and conservative voters need their spiritual leaders to help them make sense of what is happening and how to respond biblically to the chaos and uncertainty,” Barna commented. “The fact that tens of thousands of conservative pastors – even more than during the mid-term election cycle – are planning to ignore this crucial election and have followers of Christ play little-to-no role in the electoral process is shocking. The message that conservative pastors are sending to congregants is their Christian faith should have no influence on this election and therefore they should be passive bystanders while people with opposing worldviews and values make critical governance choices for Christians. With all due respect, that is both a mind-boggling lack of leadership and a startlingly bold example of poor citizenship.”
Asked why he believes this is happening, Barna pointed back to comments made by evangelist Franklin Graham at the New York event, prior to Mr. Trump’s appearance on stage. “It seems that many pastors do not want to be judged for supporting a candidate who is morally imperfect. But the truth is that none of us – these pastors included – are morally perfect, which is why we need Jesus to save us. Both of the major party candidates this year are flawed, but all candidates have always been morally flawed – they’re human! In the meantime we need to work together to elect leaders who will allow the Church to follow Christ with as much freedom and as little government interference as possible. Pastors should not ask congregants to place their full and eternal trust in a political candidate, but rather to choose the best person for the job since someone is going to be elected whether we participate in the process or not. How can conservative pastors justify sitting out the election when so much is at stake for the Church itself? And please notice that theologically liberal churches are much more engaged in the electoral process.”
Barna also pointed out that this year’s election is, in some ways, the easiest in recent memory for churches to engage in. “The policy differences between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton on social, moral, and religious issues are more distinct this year than at any time since the Reagan-Carter election in 1980. The fact that conservative pastors choose to not get involved, while also refusing to preach about the biblical foundations for thinking about the major issues, suggests that perhaps our church leaders do not know what they and the Bible believe on these matters. Why else would they not exploit the opportunity to use the election as a reason to engage, instruct, and challenge God’s people on His truth?”
About the Research
The survey was conducted by the American Culture & Faith Institute among 600 Protestant pastors who are theologically conservative based on several ideological questions as well as their self-description. The survey was conducted online during June 2016.
The American Culture & Faith Institute is a division of United in Purpose, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. The mission of United in Purpose is to educate, motivate and activate conservative Christians related to the political process. The organization does not support or promote individual candidates or political parties.
ACFI estimates that there are between 90,000 and 105,000 theologically conservative churches in the United States, spanning dozens of denominations. That estimate is based on the theological standing of the Senior Pastor of the church and the nature of the church’s statement of faith and teaching regarding key theological matters. These churches constitute about 30% of the nation’s Protestant churches.
Additional information about this and related research is accessible on the American Culture & Faith Institute website, located at www.culturefaith.com.