Most U.S. churchgoers heard sermons in the fall of 2020 that mentioned the pandemic, the election and/or racism, according to a Pew Research Center report published July 8.

Pew analyzed sermons published online between Aug. 31 and Nov. 8, 2020, finding that 83% of all congregations heard at least one sermon mentioning the COVID-19 pandemic, 67% discussing the 2020 U.S. presidential election and 44% addressing racism.

Historically Black Protestants and mainline Protestants were the most likely congregants to hear a homily referencing the pandemic (85% of congregations from both traditions did so), followed by evangelical Protestants (82%) and Catholics (69%).

Evangelical Protestant churchgoers were most likely to hear a sermon mentioning the 2020 election (71%), followed by historically Black Protestants and mainline Protestants (both at 63%) and Catholics (41%).

References to racism were most common among historically Black Protestant churches (52%), followed by mainline Protestants (50%), evangelical Protestants (41%) and Catholics (31%).

When mentioned in a sermon, 51% of the homilies had at least two references to COVID-19, while 46% had two election and 35% two racism references.

Historically Black Protestants were most likely to hear two references to COVID-19 (63%) and racism (39%) in a single sermon, while evangelical Protestants were most likely to hear two references to the election (48%).

Overall, 43% of sermons analyzed discussed specific candidates, issues or parties, while 23% included a general encouragement to vote in the election.

“Researchers also attempted to identify instances in which pastors openly encouraged their congregants to vote for a specific party or candidate. However, such explicit admonitions were rare and, as a result, the Center was unable to systematically identify them across the database,” Pew said.

“But among a sample of 535 segments of sermons that discussed the election, researchers labeled 35 as advocating for Republicans and 26 as advocating for Democrats. This included some cases in which pastors named a candidate or party as well as cases in which they advocated a clearly partisan array of policy positions.”

Notable differences emerged in how the election was framed in the sermons, Pew found. Evangelicals were more likely to hear references to “Satan,” “hell” and “pray” in the context of election references, while historically Black Protestants were more likely to hear encouragements to register and vote.

“It is important to note that even though these terms were distinctive to evangelical sermons mentioning the election, they were not especially common in evangelical sermons. The 10 most distinctive terms in evangelical sermons discussing the election were all used in fewer than 5% of segments discussing the election,” Pew noted.

By comparison, voter turnout encouragement references appeared in 10% of historically Black Protestant sermons where the election was mentioned.

The full report is available here. The methodology is available here.

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