Just days until the 2020 presidential election, the political lines are ever more apparent as yard signs, campaign stickers and flags line Chattanooga's yards and vehicles.
While residents are unlikely to see political advertising from their preferred pulpit, faith leaders are increasingly signaling where their affiliations reside. A study released this week from LifeWay Research found American pastors are more likely to endorse candidates this election than in previous election cycles.
The Southern Baptist Convention organization reported this week that, while 1% of pastors said they publicly endorsed a candidate during a church service, a third of U.S. pastors reported giving an endorsement outside of church. The finding represents a 10-point increase from 2016 despite 65% of pastors still avoiding taking a public position.
The survey also found pastors who anticipated voting for current President Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, were more likely to make a public political endorsement than pastors planning to vote for former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democrat.
Voters supporting Trump were more likely to believe it is right for churches to endorse candidates compared to voters supporting Biden, 39% to 27%.
The same divide exists among voters about whether a pastor outside of church should endorse a candidate, with 52% of Trump supporters saying this was fine compared to 40% of Biden supporters, according to the survey.
Churches and charities are barred from participating in political activity, such as campaigning or distributing materials on behalf of a candidate, according to Internal Revenue Service guidelines. Breaking these rules puts them at risk of losing their tax-exempt status.
Houses of worship throughout the Chattanooga area have led election-related efforts without explicitly endorsing any political party. For example, Orchard Knob Missionary Baptist Church has used its social media platform to remind people about early voting deadlines.
In recent weeks leading up to the election, Calvary Chapel Chattanooga held a multi-week Christian civics course to discuss political ideas through a Biblical lens, such as the church's influence on culture, cultural Marxism and critical race theory.
Dr. Tim Hill, general overseer of the Church of God in Cleveland, promoted voting in a video posted last week. He told those watching that the greatest need in the country was not political but spiritual.
"When the election cycle is over, regardless of who has won, I believe we will see another day of God's perfect sovereignty," Hill said in the video. "He will still be seated on his throne because God's authority and power has never depended upon who was president. And it won't be after this election."
Mitchell McClure, senior pastor at Middle Valley Church of God and a former Hamilton County commissioner, said he focuses on talking about issues and what the Bible says rather than candidates.
"If you start getting into personalities, that's when you're going to get into politics. But nobody can deny the issues," McClure said. " I got Republicans in my congregation. I got Democrats in my congregation. And I got mugwumps in my congregation. When you deal with issues and not personalities, you can avoid all that."
Religious voting blocs have become increasingly partisan and candidates have worked to appeal to them, whether it is white evangelicals, Black protestants or Hispanic Catholics.
Religious activism across the political spectrum goes back decades.
In 1976, the Rev. Jerry Falwell organized the Moral Majority, which eroded a Baptist tradition of separating religion and politics to support politicians opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion and homosexuality, among other issues.
The left has its share of religious-based activism as well. The leading Democratic candidate in a special election for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia is the Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, which helped give birth to and sustained one of the South's biggest political movements — the civil rights movement, led by one of the church's former pastors, the Rev. Martin Luther King.
Another one of the Georgia candidates, GOP Congressman Doug Collins, also is a former pastor and a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.
"A lot of Christians think that they shouldn't vote, but I think Christians ought to vote because it's part of our country. It's part of being involved," McClure said.
Contact Wyatt Massey at email@example.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.
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