Poll: Religious leaders should use pulpit for politics

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — In contrast to what a majority believed a generation ago, most Americans now want to see churches speaking out on political and social issues, according to a new nationwide survey of religious identity and political opinion.

The change in attitudes reflects the growing role of religion in how Americans think about politics, the Pew Research Center for People & the Press said in a report on the survey, which was funded by the Pew Charitable Trust.

The poll was based on telephone interviews with 1,975 adults in early June and on interviews conducted between 1994 and 1995.

Fully 54 percent of those polled said churches should "express their views on day-to-day social and political questions," while 43 percent preferred that churches "keep out of political matters."

That constitutes a reversal from opinion held in 1968, when only 40 percent of Americans surveyed by the Gallup polling organization said churches should express political views.

While some observers see the change as evidence of a blurring of the line between church and state, it is not something that troubles Jewish institutions. In their sermons, rabbis frequently provide a moral perspective on a variety of issues facing society, religious leaders point out.

"I think it is only for the good of society if people of conscience are involved in political debates," said Rabbi Lynn Landsberg, director of the Middle Atlantic Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Most clergy members, however, draw the line at endorsing a specific candidate or party, or specific ballot initiatives. Moreover, the Internal Revenue Service requires that religious institutions draw that line in order to maintain their tax-exempt status.

When asked whether "it is ever right for clergymen to discuss political candidates or issues from the pulpit," 66 percent said no in the Pew poll, compared with 68 percent in a 1965 Gallup survey. Twenty-nine percent said yes in the current poll, up from 22 percent in 1965.

Only one of 14 people polled said a religious leader or group urged them to vote a particular way in the 1994 elections.

And only one out of seven said political information was made available in their place of worship before the election.

Among people who attended religious services at least once or twice a month, about one in five said a clergy member spoke out on candidates and elections, and 78 percent of those saw that as a good thing.

Black Christians proved most likely to hear a political sermon (47 percent), followed by white evangelical Protestants (20 percent), white Catholics (12 percent) and white mainline Protestants (12 percent). Statistics for Jews were not available.

Still, the poll suggests Americans remain skeptical of their religious leaders' advice.

Only 7 percent of those polled said their religious leaders were likely to influence their views. Three out of four said they looked either to the media or to family and friends for guidance.

That does not mean religion still cannot help shape people's views, religious leaders emphasize.

"I think most people want religion to speak to issues that they're confronting," said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Landsberg of the UAHC agreed.

"It's almost expected that rabbis provide some kind of moral commentary to what's happening on the front page of the paper," she said.

"I think that the synagogue is viewed as a moral compass in a lot of the political discussions and debates of the day."

Meanwhile, the Pew poll found that white evangelical Protestants have emerged as one of the most powerful voting blocs nationwide.

Twenty-three percent of Americans describe themselves as white evangelical, or born-again, Protestants, according to the survey. That places them on a par with white Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants.

Only 7 percent of those polled, however, described themselves as members of the "religious right."

While there is diversity among those who identify as white evangelical Protestants, as a whole they proved more consistently conservative, more Republican and more anti-Clinton than any other major religious group, the poll found.

It also said committed evangelicals are among the most politically active citizens in the country.

Jewish Americans, by contrast, are among the most Democratic and liberal-leaning of all groups, second only to black Christians, the poll said.