When I am at the pulpit I preach Christ, and Christ never failed. Candidates often do. —David Miller, pastor
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — With Election Day approaching, pastor David Miller hadn't decided Thursday morning whether his Sunday sermon would have a political message or not.
But if he does talk politics to his Southern Hills Baptist congregation, Miller won't be naming any candidates in this swing state where the presidential election is still a toss-up.
"When I am at the pulpit I preach Christ, and Christ never failed. Candidates often do," says Miller, a Southern Baptist pastor for more than 25 years.
Miller's approach is the trend among Protestant and Catholic clergy this election season, according to a survey of congregants and another of Protestant pastors.
A survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center found that among those who attend church at least once or twice a month, 52 percent said clergy spoke about the importance of voting, while just one-in-five said clergy spoke about individual candidates.
The exception was Black Protestants, among whom 79 percent said they heard about the importance of voting spoken from the pulpit and 40 percent said clergy mentioned the candidates themselves, according to the survey of nearly 1,700 registered voters on Oct. 24-28.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a long-standing policy of political neutrality. During election seasons, LDS Church leaders encourage members to vote and become involved in the political process.
Churchgoers are more likely to hear about issues from the pulpit than about candidates, the Pew survey said. Three-quarters of the respondents said their clergy have recently spoken out about hunger and poverty, followed by abortion (37 percent), homosexuality (33 percent), religious liberty (21 percent) and immigration (16 percent).
Catholics heard more about issues with political overtones than Protestants, the survey found. More than two-thirds (62 percent) heard clergy address abortion while 32 percent heard about immigration.
A separate poll by Lifeway Research found 87 percent of pastors surveyed said they should not endorse candidates for public office from the pulpit. The survey of 1,000 pastors was taken before Oct. 7, when the Alliance Defending Freedom's "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" encouraged pastors to recommend candidates as a challenge to the IRS ban on political endorsements from the pulpit.
The Alliance contends the law, which imposes the loss of tax exempt status for churches found in violation, violates the First Amendment. But to sue the government, the Alliance needs a church to be cited by the IRS. Any sermons recommending candidates are to be recorded and sent to the IRS.
Miller won't participate. He says the pulpit is not a place to play partisan politics.
"The pulpit is where I stand to proclaim the word of God as we believe it," Miller said. "It's important that I respect the authority of God’s word by only proclaiming the truth of God’s word from the pulpit and not using (the pulpit) to promote a person or political party or whatever."
Miller will address moral issues like abortion or traditional marriage that have become political litmus tests over the past 40 years. And he acknowledges that addressing those issues can be de-facto candidate endorsements.
"If I tell you that abortion is the most important issue, that clearly tells you who I am voting for," he said, disclosing he will vote for Romney.
Of those surveyed by Pew who said their clergy's message favored a candidate, 15 percent said the messages supported Obama, while 14 percent favored Romney.
But what congregants heard varied by race.
"Nearly half (45 percent) of black Protestant churchgoers say the messages they hear at church favor a candidate, and every one of those says the message favors Obama," the Pew study stated. "Fewer white churchgoers say they are hearing things that favor a candidate, but among those who are, the messages are far more favorable to Romney than Obama."
Academic researchers have claimed that mixing partisan politics with religion is a primary way churches drive away members, particularly those born after 1980 — so-called millennials who are increasingly leaving organized religion. A recent analysis of those who are unaffiliated with any religion found 67 percent of them viewed religion as too involved in politics, compared with 46 percent of the general population.
But research has also shown that religious institutions have backed off political messaging from the pulpit. Academics Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, who wrote "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us," found in 2006 that 32 percent of Americans attending a church heard political content in sermons at least once a month, compared with just 19 percent in 2011, which is the same percentage in the Pew survey in October.
And the Pew study said few voters are hearing messages at church that conflict with their own voting preferences. Among those who favor Obama, 32 percent said what they heard at church is supportive of Obama, compared with 5 percent who said the messages were more supportive of Romney. Among Romney supporters, 24 percent heard messages more favorable to Romney than Obama (1 percent).
"Our congregation is so conservative," Miller noted, "that if I stood up and endorsed Romney publicly I would probably get a standing ovation."