On a cool February morning in Washington, D.C., the recently inaugurated President Trump, eager to win over the audience at the National Prayer Breakfast, announced a proposal to repeal the Johnson Amendment. This proposal was of particular interest to the powerful Christian leaders in attendance because, if executed, it would mean lifting the more than 60-year-old ban on church endorsements of political candidates.
This announcement was praised by conservative Christian organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom, which believes the tax code places restrictions on their First Amendment right to religious liberty by prohibiting their involvement in political campaigning.
But, resting as it does at the intersection of religion and politics, Trump’s words raise a key question: Was his announcement simply rhetoric, a nod to his conservative voting base? Or was it an actual electoral strategy, aimed at ensuring Christian conservatives vote for his party in the 2018 midterm elections?
Let’s assume that it was not rhetoric, but a real campaign strategy to maintain Republican control in the House, and grow Republican presence in the Senate. The question becomes, will it work? Would repealing the Johnson Amendment provide reasonable motivation for white evangelical Christians to significantly increase their normal rate of voting and campaigning in a midterm election, thereby demonstrably helping Republicans to maintain or increase partisan control of both legislative chambers?
Our analyses of survey data on religion and politics leads us to believe that that political strategy is not at all guaranteed to succeed, and is, in fact, likely to fail.
It may surprise some to learn that theologically and politically liberal clergy are far more likely than their conservative counterparts to encourage political activism and to discuss political issues from the pulpit. According to the National Congregations Survey, conducted in 2012, roughly one-half of clergy who lead politically liberal congregations inform their congregants during worship services about opportunities to influence policy via petition campaigns, lobbying, or demonstrating. Conversely, only about one-quarter of clergy in more conservative congregations do so.
And when clergy do articulate their positions on political issues during sermons, they are more likely to take liberal than conservative positions. A 2016 Pew Research Center poll reported that among congregants who say their clergy take a position on immigration in sermons, roughly three-fourths say their clergy supporting immigrants, while one-fourth call for laws to better keep immigrants out.
So if, on a crisp fall Sunday, President Trump were to visit a prototypically “political” congregation — that is, a politically and theologically liberal mainline, Catholic, or black Protestant congregation, that tends to vote and identify as Democrat — he might hear a pastor draw parallels between the biblical stories of welcoming refugees and the sanctuary cities of today. He would be far more likely to witness cries to “beat our weapons into plowshares” than calls to fan the flames of war. He’d be less likely to hear a sermon explicitly framing Black Lives Matter activists as un-patriotic, and more likely to hear that the political drama played out by activists may remind us of our obligation to renew our hope in the possibility of one day erasing racial injustice.
In our published studies and in our forthcoming book, Race, Sermons, and Politics in America, we consistently find white attendees of “political” congregations to have a greater tendency than white attendees of “non-political” congregations to take progressive positions on social welfare, race, immigration, and defense and criminal justice.
And while white evangelicals make up a clear majority of President Trump’s Christian base, white Americans that recall hearing sermons about politics are more likely to have negative perceptions of the Republican Party — regardless of religious faith and/or political affiliation. This same social group is likely to see the Democratic Party in a more favorable light. This suggests that encouraging political talk among religious congregations could, in fact, create fertile ground for the mobilization of progressive white, black and Hispanic Christians.
In short, our research indicates that it is quite possible that a repeal of the Johnson Amendment that permits politics in the pulpit may in fact embolden a “religious left,” of the sort many media outlets claim has already become more active in the months following the 2016 presidential election, far beyond the effects of emboldening the religious right. The president’s effort to loosen restrictions on the political campaigning of religious congregations could in fact provide a window of opportunity for faith voices like the Rev. William Barber, progressive liberal pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in North Carolina and executive director of the Moral Monday Movement, to persuade members of his organization to become more directly involved in political campaigning for candidates aimed at increasing the minimum wage and protecting unions.
Likewise, leaders of faith-based community organizing firms, like MOSES of Detroit, may feel less inhibited to recruit church leaders to join their efforts at pressuring local and state-wide governments to increase funding for infrastructure, job-training, and education projects aimed at aiding the working class and poor — particularly racial/ethnic minorities — in American cities.
So it’s unlikely that President Trump’s proposal would yield a groundswell of conservative clergy becoming more willing to engage in electoral campaigning in the upcoming 2018 congressional mid-term elections.
That is, of course, if this is his policy aim. If it is simply rhetorical strategy, President Trump has already achieved his goal. White evangelicals still firmly believe that Trump is the leader America needs.