Democracy Dies in Darkness

Acts of Faith

Donald Trump's pastor problem: 40 percent of Protestant ministers are still undecided

By Sarah Pulliam Bailey

October 7, 2016 at 4:20 PM

A large number of Protestant pastors are undecided ahead of the election, and few of them have endorsed a candidate from the pulpit. Their indecision poses an issue for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. In the past two elections, more of these pastors suggested they were firmly in the Republican camp.

The number of "undecided" pastors (40 percent) outranks those who say they support Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (19 percent) or Trump (32 percent), according to a new poll of 1,000 pastors. The new survey from the Christian polling LifeWay Research suggests that 4 percent of pastors support Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, and 3 percent do not plan to vote.

The pastors who were polled have held very different opinions in the past. In the past two cycles, they favored Republicans by between 35 and 40 percentage points. This time, however, Trump's lead over Clinton is just 13 points. The reason Trump has less support is not because more pastors support Clinton but fewer pastors support Trump, and a higher number of pastors are still undecided.

The election has proven to be divisive for leaders and their flocks. While Trump has received endorsements from leaders of evangelical institutions and churches, such as Jerry Falwell Jr. and the Rev. Robert Jeffress, he has also been opposed by prominent leaders including Southern Baptist theologian Russell Moore and author Max Lucado.

Trump has made appeals to evangelicals by saying he would want to repeal the Johnson amendment, which bars tax-exempt organizations from participating in political activities. However, 98 percent of pastors said they have not endorsed a candidate during a church service this year.

"Enthusiasm for endorsements appears to be waning this year," Scott McConnell, director of LifeWay Research, said in a statement.

Pastors appear more reluctant to endorse outside church walls this year than they did in 2012. Twenty-two percent of Protestant pastors said they have endorsed a candidate outside of their church role, but in 2012, 44 percent said they had made endorsements outside their church.

In the latest Washington Post/ABC survey,  likely Protestant voters were split nearly evenly between Clinton and Trump, 47 to 45 percent. Protestants were no more likely than Americans overall to say they have no opinion or would not vote (3 percent of Protestants and all Americans alike said this).

Evangelical pastors favor Trump 39-9 over Clinton, while 45 percent are undecided. The Washington Post/ABC poll indicates that evangelicals of any race favored Trump 52-40 percent, while non-evangelicals favored Clinton 56-36.

On the other hand, mainline pastors are split 43-15 for Clinton, with 35 percent undecided.

Different characteristics and policy positions mattered most to pastors, including personal character, Supreme Court appointments and religious freedom.

This year's survey of pastors was conducted slightly earlier in the campaign than in past years. The poll was conducted late August through mid-September, while polls were conducted in late September/early October in 2012 and October in 2008.

Both candidates have been unpopular, according to a Post/ABC poll taken in August. Pastors' indecision reflects a larger trend this year in which more voters said they were undecided than they did in years past. In August, about 12 percent of voters did not have a preference between Clinton and Trump in the RealClearPolitics national average, a higher percentage than said the same at this point in 2012, 2008 or 2004.

"When it comes to politics, pastors are just as divided as other Americans," McConnell said.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.


Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a religion reporter, covering how faith intersects with politics, culture and...everything.

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