WASHINGTON – Two-thirds of American congregations heard explicitly political messaging in sermons in the immediate run-up to the 2020 election and more than a quarter of churches posted something overtly political on their websites, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center.
Politics weren’t mentioned evenly across sects, though; Pew found 71% of evangelical Protestant congregations heard at least one sermon referencing the election versus 63% of both mainline Protestant and historically Black Protestant congregations and only 41% of Catholic congregations.
The analysis examined 12,832 publicly available sermons from 2,143 churches from Aug. 30 to Nov. 8, 2020, the height of a fierce election season and a period of rising coronavirus cases nationally.
The COVID-19 pandemic was the most discussed topic by clergy, with 83% of congregations hearing at least one sermon touching on the pandemic. Clergy who mentioned the pandemic often also did so multiple times while preaching.
The study is not necessarily a representative sample of what Americans heard in religious messages because it doesn’t account for non-Chrisitan faiths or churches that didn’t share their sermons publicly online.
Yet the report’s findings do underscore the need that many congregants and clergy felt to address the top issues in the national conversation, including the ongoing pandemic, racial justice and the 2020 election.
In all cases, the election and politics were the second most discussed topic, followed by racism. Pew also found that different topics were more widely discussed between denominations and demographics.
Breakdown by denomination
Catholic priests were the least likely to touch on the major topics of the day, with only 41% of priests mentioning the election in a sermon and 32% touching on racism. Over two-thirds, 69%, of Catholic priests touched on the pandemic in their sermons, a number an average of 10 points lower than other major Christian branches.
Historically Black protestant churches were likeliest to discuss racism, with 52% of congregations hearing a sermon that touched on race. Mainline protestant churches saw a similar number, with 50% of churches hearing at least one sermon in the period that touched on racism.
The language used and issues discussed by clergy also varied across denominations. Historically Black protestant churches were far more likely to encourage their congregations to vote and use words like “register” and “suppress” in messages.
Evangelical churchgoers were most likely to discuss the election and “disproportionately used phrases related to prayer and to forces of evil,” according to Pew.
Evangelical congregations were much more likely to hear election-related calls to pray, often within common phrases like “pray for the president” or “pray for our president.” References to “Satan” and “hell” were also referenced more often than in other congregations.
Evangelical protestant churches, at 41%, heard racism discussed in sermons. Terms like “police officer,” “crime” and “convict” were commonly used in such discourse.
When discussing racism, historically Black congregations were most likely to hear terms like “anti-racism” and “white supremacist” used by pastors while evangelical protestants heard more vague terms like “racial tension” in sermons.
Catholic and mainline protestant congregations, meanwhile, more often discussed the election and other current events in the context of their religious practices, with words like “mass” and “communion” most commonly occurring in election-related sermons.
Follow Matthew Brown online @mrbrownsir.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pew analysis: Sermons turned political in 2020 amid COVID, election