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A new Pew Research Center report explores how often key social and political issues are being addressed by faith leaders.

Religious liberty is one of the most common political issues being addressed in churches this election season, according to a new Pew Research Center report, with four in 10 U.S. adults who attended at least one or two worship services in the last few months saying they have heard clergy speak on the topic.

White evangelical Protestants are the most likely to have heard sermons or speeches in defense of religious liberty, with 42 percent saying faith leaders have spoken about the issue’s importance, Pew reported. But many clergy from other denominations have also engaged the subject, and around one-third of white mainline Protestants (28 percent) and Catholics (32 percent) say they’ve heard religious liberty defended from the pulpit.

John Green, a distinguished professor of political science at the University of Akron, said these findings confirm what many political analysts suspected: Religious liberty is a key issue this election season for politicians, judges and faith leaders alike.

“In all of the major religious traditions, there’s concern about defending religious liberty,” he said.

Pew’s analysis also tracked discussions of homosexuality, abortion, immigration, environmental issues and economic inequality, offering an overview of which issues are most salient for Catholics and major Protestant groups.

"The goal was to come up with a variety of different topics, including topics that seemed to be bubbling up throughout the campaign, and get a measure on whether they’re coming up in people’s places of worship," said Jessica Martinez, a senior researcher at Pew.

The survey of more than 4,600 U.S. adults was conducted online and by mail from June 5-July 7, and it has a margin of error of 2.3 percentage points. The key findings are based on the 40 percent who had attended religious services at least once or twice in the past few months.

Overall, 64 percent of recent churchgoers had heard clergy address one of the six social and political issues Pew tracked, and nearly half (46 percent) had heard about more than one, the survey noted.

Faith leaders were much more likely to address these issues than to endorse or speak out against a specific candidate, Pew reported. Only 14 percent of recent churchgoers have heard a candidate endorsement from the pulpit, which is illegal under the Johnson Amendment. The 2016 Republican Party platform includes the goal of repealing this law.

Varied expectations

Some of the social and political issues analyzed in Pew's report are perennial topics in faith communities, such as abortion and homosexuality, Green said. These moral concerns are built into core teachings of Catholicism and evangelical Christianity, so it's not surprising that faith leaders would speak on them during election season.

Nearly 4 in 10 recent churchgoers (39 percent) say their clergy had addressed homosexuality and 29 percent had heard sermons or speeches on abortion, Pew reported.

Engagement with each issue varied from faith group to faith group based on differences in church teachings or leadership.

For example, Catholics were more likely to hear clergy speak about the need to protect the environment, likely because Pope Francis has called repeatedly for improved environmental stewardship. Three in 10 Catholics who recently attended a worship service say their clergy address environmental issues, compared to 11 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 16 percent of white mainline Protestants, according to the report.

The popularity of religious liberty can not only be tied to many faith groups' long-term commitment to protecting this right, but also to high-profile Supreme Court rulings that affected conscience rights, Green said. Catholic leaders might be addressing religious liberty in the context of the Affordable Care Act requiring religious nonprofits to provide employees with contraception, while evangelicals could be more concerned with the ramifications of same-sex marriage legalization.

Green said he was surprised that the subject of economic inequality did not come up more often in religious communities, given the prominence of economic issues at the Republican and Democratic national conventions.

Compared to 31 percent of black Protestants, only 9 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 16 percent of white mainline Protestants and 20 percent of Catholics say their clergy have spoken on economic inequality in recent months, the survey noted.

“In the absence of survey data, one might have imagined that it would have been widely discussed in congregations," Green said.

In spite of these reasons why many faith leaders may want to address topics like religious liberty or the environment from the pulpit, some congregations avoid political issues altogether. Half of recent churchgoers (49 percent) say their clergy rarely or never speak about politics, Pew reported.

Shielding a congregation from campaign season at church can be a smart move, because many churchgoers aren't interested in hearing political headlines repeated from the pulpit, Green said.

“Very few people go to church for political purposes. Their religious values may influence their politics, but they’re there for spiritual and religious reasons,” he said.

Additional findings from the report

  • Black Protestants are most likely to hear faith leaders endorse candidates
Pew’s report showed a wide gap between different faith groups in terms of candidate endorsements.

“Among black Protestants who have been in church recently, roughly 3 in 10 (29 percent) have heard clergy speak out in support of a candidate — mostly Hillary Clinton — and an equal share have heard religious leaders speak out against a candidate (primarily Donald Trump,)” the survey reported.

Faith leaders in other denominations are much less likely to speak about specific candidates, and only around 1 in 10 Catholics, white evangelicals and white mainline Protestants reported hearing their clergy support or speak out against a specific presidential nominee.

“Black Protestants have always been much more comfortable endorsing candidates,” Green said, noting that many white Protestants and Catholics think endorsements cross a line that clergy shouldn’t cross.

“Because of the history of segregation, the black church has played a very central role in the black community, and it still does,” he said. “The community developed an expectation that clergy and the whole congregation would have an expansive view of public affairs”

Overall, two-thirds of Americans (66 percent) say churches should not come out in favor of one candidate over another, according to Pew’s recent survey on religion and the presidential election.

  • Current candidate endorsements from the pulpit favor Clinton
Donald Trump joined Republican Party leaders in calling for a repeal of the Johnson Amendment, arguing that faith leaders are clamoring for the opportunity to make candidate endorsements but fearful of losing their church's tax exempt status if they violate the restriction under the federal tax code.

“We’re going to get rid of that horrible Johnson Amendment and we’re going to let evangelicals, we’re going to let Christians and Jews and people of religion, talk without being afraid to talk,” he said in a July 16 speech, according to The Washington Post.

But according to Pew's research, it's Clinton, not Trump, who is garnering the most illegal political endorsements from clergy.

Nearly 3 in 10 black Protestants (28 percent) and 5 percent of Catholics who recently attended church have heard clergy endorse Hillary Clinton, compared to 2 percent and fewer than 1 percent, respectively, who have heard a faith leader support Donald Trump, the survey reported. It was also more likely for clergy to speak out against Trump than to disparage Clinton.

  • Some clergy try to "get out the vote"
Many faith leaders are urging church members to cast their ballots this November, whether or not they feel comfortable speaking on specific social and political issues.

Four in 10 recent churchgoers say faith leaders have encouraged them to vote in the general election for president, including 47 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 59 percent of black Protestants and 34 percent of Catholics, Pew reported.

"It could be interesting to ask these questions again later (in the campaign) to see … if more people are encouraged to vote," Martinez said.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com, Twitter: @kelsey_dallas