Protestant pastors at odds with each other regarding election and issues, based on ideology

2016 election bannerThe United States has about 320,000 Protestant churches. Research indicates that about one-third of them are theologically conservative, about half are theologically moderate, and the remaining 15% are theologically liberal. They all claim to believe in the same God and preach from the same scriptures, but a new study by the American Culture & Faith Institute, led by George Barna, shows that their political views are substantially different, especially in regard to the 2016 election.

Paying Attention

The survey discovered that theologically conservative pastors are much more likely to be engaged in this year’s election. Just less than half of the conservative pastors (44%) said they have paid “a lot of attention” to the election so far, compared to 28% of the moderate and liberal pastors.

When those figures are compared to the answers provided by a survey of SAGE Cons – the spiritually active, governance engaged conservatives in the general population – the research indicates that Christian conservatives are much more likely to be paying attention to the election than are pastors – regardless of the theological orientation of the clergy. Overall, during the same time frame during which the pastors’ survey was conducted, a national study among SAGE Cons was also conducted that showed 56% of the congregants had paid “a lot of attention” to the election so far.

Winning the Senate

There are 34 Senate seats up for grabs in this year’s election. Two out of every three conservative pastors (67%) believe that the Republicans will retain control of the Senate, while just one in ten (9%) believe the Democrats will take over, and one-quarter (24%) are uncertain. Moderate and liberal pastors are more divided over the outcome: a plurality (39%) expects the Democrats to take over the majority, 29% expect the GOP to retain its edge, and a similar proportion (28%) is undecided.

Among the SAGE Cons 58% believe the Republicans will keep control of the Senate, while 10% foresee a Democratic takeover, and 30% do not know what to expect.

Winning the White House

The two pastoral segments are much more clearly divided over who will win the presidency in November. Among theologically conservative pastors, half (50%) expect Mr. Trump to win, 15% predict a victory for Mrs. Clinton, and the remaining one-third are undecided. Moderate and liberal pastors see the outcome completely differently. A majority of them (56%) expect Mrs. Clinton to win, just one out of ten (11%) foresee a Trump victory, and one-third are unsure.

The answers of the SAGE Cons were nearly identical to those of the theologically conservative pastors: 47% expect Mr. Trump to be the next President while 18% foresee a Clinton victory.

Personal Preference

Pastors’ personal preference in the presidential race is also diametrically opposite. While 70% of the conservative pastors plan to vote for Mr. Trump, compared to 2% who will support Mrs. Clinton, the opposite is true among the moderate and liberal pastors: 52% say they will vote for Mrs. Clinton and 13% will back Mr. Trump.

The other noteworthy outcome related to presidential preference is that 12% of the conservative pastors and 20% of the moderate and liberal clergy plan to vote for someone other than the major party candidates.

The remaining 17% of conservative pastors and 15% of the moderate and liberal pastors either have not made up their mind yet or plan to not vote at all.

Among SAGE Cons, 74% support Mr. Trump compared to just 1% who back Mrs. Clinton – an outcome that is strikingly similar to that of the theologically conservative pastors.

Top Challenges

They may live in the same nation but these two groups of pastors typically identify different problems as the top challenges facing America today. The ACFI survey revealed 13 issues on which there were statistically significant differences between the two groups.

For instance, the theologically conservative pastors were more likely to cite each of the following issues as one of the two most serious challenges facing the U.S.:

7-20-16 table 1

In like manner, there were a half-dozen issues which theologically moderate and liberal pastors deemed to be more serious to the future health of the nation than did theologically conservative pastors. Those issues are listed below.

7-20-16 table 2

Division in the Christian Body

According to George Barna, who directs research at the American Culture & Faith Institute, the survey underscores the schism within the body of Christ in America.

“For years we have seen that the eight out of ten people who consider themselves to be Christian and who attend a Christian church have been seriously divided in their political beliefs. Evangelicals tend to vote for conservatives, mainliners tend to support liberals, and the rest of the body is up for grabs. This research shows that the same rift that appears among Christian individuals is evident among pastors, too. Rather than becoming a source of understanding and unity, is it possible that the Christian churches of America actually facilitate the social and political divisions that is tearing the public apart?”

The veteran researcher pointed out the differences related to America’s challenges. “If you believe that the Bible provides us with a coherent, consistent, and clear worldview to follow, it’s amazing to see that churches are essentially offering people a choice between two or possibly three unique worldviews that have all allegedly been drawn from the same Bible. It’s no wonder that so few Americans have a biblical worldview when it appears that their spiritual leaders cannot agree on the substance of a biblical worldview.”

About the Research

The clergy survey was part of the Conservative Clergy Canvass (C3), a longitudinal survey among a national panel of Protestant pastors.  The research was conducted by the American Culture & Faith Institute among 600 Protestant pastors. The survey was conducted online during June 2016. Additional interviews were conducted with a national sample of theologically moderate and liberal pastors as well.

The American Culture & Faith Institute is a division of United in Purpose, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. The mission of United in Purpose is to educate, motivate and activate conservative Christians related to the political process. The organization does not support or promote individual candidates or political parties.

ACFI estimates that there are between 90,000 and 105,000 theologically conservative churches in the United States, spanning dozens of denominations. That estimate is based on the theological standing of the Senior Pastor of the church and the nature of the church’s statement of faith and teaching regarding key theological matters. These churches constitute about 30% of the nation’s Protestant churches.

Additional information about this and related research is available through a free subscription to the SAGE Con Weekly, a weekly newsletter that is accessible through the American Culture & Faith Institute website, located at


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American Culture & Faith Institute
By: George Barna
Contact: Terry Gorka –, 805-340-0608