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Preaching or Avoiding Politics, Conservative Churches Walk a Delicate Line

This election cycle, Mr. Finch is all in. On Oct. 4, he preached a Sunday sermon on voting. “The Bible is a voter’s guide,” he told the congregation. Without explicitly telling members how to fill out their ballots, he ticked off God’s priorities, in his view: abortion, support for Israel, religious freedom. He has also signed his church up with My Faith Votes, an organization that aims to boost turnout among conservative Christian voters by distributing voter guides and video content to churches for use in weekend services.

Mr. Finch is not alone in his awakening. Just 1 percent of Protestant pastors say they have endorsed a candidate from the pulpit this year, according to a survey conducted this fall by LifeWay Research, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. That number is unchanged since 2016. But 32 percent of Protestant pastors said they have endorsed a political candidate away from the pulpit, ostensibly outside of their role as a pastor. That is a 10 percentage point increase since the last presidential election cycle. Pastors who say they are voting for Mr. Trump are more likely to say they have made an endorsement.

Still, in many white conservative churches, “there’s a fear of being labeled ‘political,’” said Kaitlyn Schiess, the author of “The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor,” a book urging evangelicals to engage more intentionally with politics. “As Christians, we’re supposed to be above that.”

An analysis by the Pew Research Center of 50,000 sermons streamed online last year found that 4 percent of Christian sermons even mentioned abortion, and those that did rarely focused entirely on the topic. Smaller congregations were more likely than larger ones to hear discussion of abortion in sermons.

At many evangelical churches, there have been almost no hints from the pulpit in recent weeks of the divisive election on the way.

“My job is to articulate to the members of our congregation a traditional, orthodox Christian worldview,” said Tim Breen, pastor of First Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa, a congregation he described as “center right.” “I don’t feel a call to recommend who to vote for or even necessarily how to vote.” Most people in his congregation, he said, would not be able to guess who he is voting for.

At Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Va., churchgoers can participate in a class titled “The Bible, the Church and Politics” on Wednesday evenings leading up to the election. One session listed biblical priorities including a safety net for the poor, fair wages, “creation stewardship,” personal responsibility and “protection of the unborn.”

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