October 17, 2017

Unethical Polling & Church Politics

A dirty little secret in polling is that you can generally get the result you want by framing the question in the "right" way to lead people as they answer the questions. This can be a way of trying to sway public opinion. Many people don't like being in the minority, so if they see that most people feel one way then they may think they should as well.

Although such misleading polling is unethical, it doesn't surprise me when partisan groups engage in it. I am disappointed, however, to see LifeWay Research try it. LifeWay, a Southern Baptist organization, released a poll supposedly about the so-called 'Johnson Amendment' that prevents nonprofits (including churches) from engaging in partisan politics while maintaining their tax-exempt status. President Donald Trump and some political activists want to undo that 60-year-old bipartisan IRS regulation so they can push churches to back candidates. Churches engaging in partisan politics is bad for politics, but even worse for churches.

One of the partisan groups that's been fighting the 'Johnson Amendment' for years is the Alliance Defending Freedom. I wrote about their religious-political rhetoric on this topic in my third book (Sacramental Politics: Religious Worship as Political Action). ADF paid for the new LifeWay Research polling, which goes a long way in explaining why the poll's so biased.

The LifeWay-ADF poll found ... wait for it ... people are for "pulpit freedom." Wow. I bet people also like candy, free cash, and love. If the news release about the poll didn't mention the 'Johnson Amendment,' it would be hard to make the connection between it and the question actually asked.


Problem is that's not really what the 'Johnson Amendment' is about. Pastors have the freedom to say whatever they want from the pulpit. Full stop.

What pastors don't have is the right to get a tax-exemption if they are partisan. If a church wants to be partisan, they have that right and can turn down the privilege of receiving a tax-exempt status. Churches aren't singled out by the regulation, but instead are treated with the same regulation as other tax-exempt nonprofits. Churches weren't even the target of the legislation, though that's not the way Trump and his allies often frame it.

People giving to partisan politics shouldn't get tax-exempt credit for such donations - even if it's a religious group getting the money. If you want Caesar's benefit, you render to Caesar.

Instead of asking questions about "pulpit freedom," what if LifeWay asked about if tax-exempt nonprofits should be able to engage in partisan politics? That question would actually get to the heart of the issue of the 'Johnson Amendment.' It turns out that question has been asked by better pollsters. And the results are clear: people overwhelmingly support the provisions of the 'Johnson Amendment' (despite what the misleading LifeWay-ADF poll is twisted to say). Clearly, not all polls are created equal.

I'm not surprised by the ADF's work here to push their partisan agenda that will harm churches. But I'm disappointed to see Christian pollsters help the shameful cause with misleading polls.

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