For pastors in America’s Protestant pulpits, Election Day 2020 is starting to look a lot like 2016.
Most evangelicals whose priorities mesh – for the most part – with the Republican Party are ready to vote for Donald Trump, according to a LifeWay Research survey. Protestant clergy who do not self-identify as evangelicals plan to vote for Democrat Joe Biden.
The difference in 2020 is that fewer pastors are struggling to make a decision. A survey at the same point in the 2016 race found that 40 percent of Protestant pastors remained undecided, while 32 percent backed Trump and 19 percent supported Hillary Clinton. This time, only 22 percent remain undecided, with 53 percent saying they plan to vote for Trump, while 21 percent support Biden.
“There’s still a lot of ‘undecided’ pastors,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay. “Quite a few pastors – for a variety of reasons – want to put themselves in the ‘undecided’ bucket. …
“Last time around, Donald Trump was such an unknown factor and many pastors really didn’t know what to do with him. This time, it appears that more people know what Trump is about and they have made their peace with that, one way or another. The president is who he is, and people have made up their minds.”
Looming in the background is a basic fact about modern American politics. In the end, the overwhelming majority of pastors who say they are Democrats plan to vote for Biden (85 percent), and the Republicans plan to back Trump (81 percent).
Some pastors have a logical reason to linger in the “undecided” category – their doctrinal convictions don’t mesh well with the doctrines of the major political parties.
The Rev. Tim Keller, an influential evangelical writer who founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, recently stirred up online debates with a New York Times essay called, “How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t.”
In recent decades, he noted, Democrats and Republicans have embraced an approach to politics in which party leaders assume that working with them on one crucial issue requires agreement with the rest of their party platforms.
“This emphasis on package deals puts pressure on Christians in politics,” he noted. “For example, following both the Bible and the early church, Christians should be committed to racial justice and the poor, but also to the understanding that sex is only for marriage and for nurturing family. One of those views seems liberal and the other looks oppressively conservative.”
Keller’s bottom line: “The historical Christian positions on social issues do not fit into contemporary political alignments.” That’s a stance affirmed by large numbers of Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican leaders around the world, as well as many evangelicals.
It’s clear, in the LifeWay survey results, that theology and cultural issues affected the outcomes – in ways that spotlight current tensions in pulpits and pews of all kinds.
Nearly 70 percent of self-identified evangelicals in the LifeWay survey said they will support the president, compared with 20 percent of clergy in the older, and increasingly smaller, mainline Protestant denominations. Among Black pastors – both evangelical and mainline – 61 percent plan to back Biden, with 6 percent supporting Trump.
What are the issues linked to these decisions? A large majority of pastors in this survey (70 percent) said that a candidate’s stance on abortion was crucial, along with a commitment to protect religious liberty (65 percent). In a question linked to both of those issues, 62 percent said they paid close attention to statements about potential Supreme Court nominees.
But the list of important issues didn’t stop there, with 54 percent of pastors mentioning the state of the economy, along with concerns about national security (54 percent), personal character (53 percent), immigration (51 percent) and racial injustice (51 percent).
Inside those numbers, evangelicals were more likely than mainline pastors (82 percent to 38 percent) to cite abortion as a crucial issue. While 72 percent of evangelicals mentioned religious liberty, 41 percent of mainline pastors did so. Mainline pastors were more focused on racial injustice (73 percent to 44 percent) and slowing the spread of COVID-19 (55 percent to 28 percent).
“Pastors tend to be multi-issue voters,” said McConnell. “They are concerned about a lot of issues in American life. … When it comes to voting, they’re trying to find a way to stay consistent with the issues at the top of their lists.”
Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and senior fellow at The King’s College in New York City.