An Evangelical Group Wants Congress to Change the Law So That Pastors Can Endorse Political Candidates in Church

Right now, U.S. law prohibits non-profit groups — including churches — from endorsing political candidates:

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.

However, on “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” pastors have openly defied this law by doing the one thing they’re not supposed to do: Tell their congregations who to vote for. (Some pastors have even sent the IRS videos of their sermons).

An actual church sign

More than 1,600 pastors participated in the event in 2012 alone, so this isn’t just a fringe group we’re talking about.

(If you’re wondering why the IRS hasn’t taking action, the answer is simple: bureaucracy. A “high-level” employee has to authorize the audits and no one is currently in a position to do that. The IRS isn’t rushing to fill the spot, either.)

In 2011, Senator Chuck Grassley, who sits on the Joint Committee on Taxation, asked the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability to issue a report proposing answers to questions dealing with taxes and religious organizations.

Today, a report was released by the ECFA (which formed the “Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations”) and they’re urging Congress to change the law so that church leaders can endorse candidates from the pulpit:

While the report is a bit long and convoluted, the heart of it is that the group doesn’t want 501(c)(3) non-profits (including churches) to be able to give money to candidates — directly or indirectly — but they do want them to be able to endorse candidates.

They even offer a few examples of what they think should be allowed:

During a regular worship service, [hypothetical Oak Lane Church's] officiating minister makes statements in support of a particular candidate for public office and encourages the congregation to vote for that candidate

… The minister’s communications related to the candidate would be considered no-cost political communications, and would not constitute prohibited participation or intervention in a political campaign.

Same goes for election guides that endorse particular candidates. As long as no serious money is involved, the group says it ought to be totally fine:

[Oak Lane Church] receives printed voter guides in connection with an upcoming election from an unrelated organization at no cost to OLC… The voter guides do contain language expressly advocating the election or defeat of certain specifically-identified candidates… No additional or incremental costs are incurred by OLC… Distribution of the voter guides would be considered no-cost political communications, and would not constitute prohibited participation or intervention in a political campaign.

Needless to say, this would be a disaster if Congress allowed it. Every church in the country would start to endorse candidates, further intertwining their faith with politics and ruining both in the process. Members of Congress would be giving tax breaks to groups that are essentially supporting their own campaigns. And far more churches would become pawns in the culture wars.

Last year, Yale law professor Adam Cohen pointed out in TIME a couple of other reasons allowing pulpit campaigning would be a bad idea:

The first is simple enough: tax deductibility is expensive. If politics done through churches can be funded with tax-deductible contributions, more political activity will be done through churches — and the government will collect less in taxes. That will end up costing taxpayers a lot.

Then there is the matter of fairness — and it cuts against the churches. If a group of friends get together to engage in politics, they cannot deduct the money they spend to support a candidate. It is not clear why a group of people who get together to pray should be able to do their political activity with tax-deductible money.

As religious as our Congress is now, it would only get worse if every candidate had to fight to get the endorsement, not of big city newspapers, but local megachurch pastors.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is strongly opposed to these suggested changes to the law and wants Congress to ignore the report altogether:

“The law on church electioneering doesn’t need to be changed, it needs to be enforced,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “ECFA’s proposal would reduce America’s houses of worship to mere cogs in political machines.”

Added Lynn, “Americans reject pulpit politicking. They attend houses of worship for spiritual solace, not partisan preaching.”

By the way, even Christians don’t want to see their pastors endorsing candidates at church. Just last year, a LifeWay Research poll revealed that 87% of pastors opposed being able to tell their congregations who to vote for.

I don’t say this often, but the pastors are right.

Pulpit politicking isn’t a problem and it doesn’t need to be fixed.

***Update***: The Center For Inquiry’s Michael De Dora agrees that the current laws are fine; they just need to be enforced:

… houses of worship and nonprofits are not forced to apply for, or receive, tax-exempt status. They choose to do so because of the benefits provided by such a classification. In return, the government requires these groups to not engage in partisan [politicking]. This prevents groups from receiving tax breaks, then turning around and using the money saved to influence political elections.

The real problem with the IRS ban is not the ban itself, which most Americans believe is a good policy, for good reasons.

The real problem is that the IRS does not enforce the ban

***Update 2*** (8/15/13, 9:32p): The Interfaith Alliance’s Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy has responded:

“Frankly, there is already too much religion in politics. When candidates invoke religion, or ask clergy to do it for them, it is usually about advancing the candidate and rarely about benefiting religion. Changing the laws of the land to allow a further intertwining of religion and politics will only serve to endanger both. Having served as an active pastor for more than 50 years, I cannot think of a more effective way of harming houses of worship across our nation than to allow partisan politics to compromise the integrity of the inclusive message of houses of worship.”


About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Mike Lee

    I have to quote from the great George Carlin, “if they want to have a say, let them pay the f***ing admission price like everybody else!” Pay taxes, or stfu.

  • Matthew Baker

    If they can already break the law with impunity thanks to some Reagan era shenanigans do they really need the law changed?

  • smrnda

    They seem to be arguing that a pastor who endorses a candidate is doing so for free so that no money is funding the political speech, but if you’re speaking as a pastor in a church, everything you say is basically church-funded – they’re saying that somehow, if a pastor says “Jesus Christ almighty’ in one sentence, it’s billed to the church or church funded but if he says “candidate X all the way’ suddenly it’s not.

    • Machintelligence

      The pastor is free to set his soap box in the public square and endorse whomever he likes. He just can’t do it in church. Location, location, location.

    • Baby_Raptor

      Not to mention tax funded, since we pay their way.

  • LesterBallard

    Fine; then tax the ever living fuck out of ‘em.

  • LesterBallard

    Of course, they’ll freak when Imam’s start doing it.

  • pRinzler

    “A “high-level” employee has to authorize the audits and no one is currently in a position to do that.”

    Huh? Are you saying there is no one in a high-level position at the IRS? I don’t really know what your sentence means. Please elaborate.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      The IRS has made the rule intentionally vague so that they can claim there is no one who qualifies for it, thus allowing them to evade having to take responsibility to perform an unpopular job.

      • Tom

        To which one has the urge to say “Did you read the sign over the door when you joined? You’re taxmen*. There ain’t a popular job in the building.”

        *”taxpeople,” actually, but it doesn’t scan as well.

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          (Sorry, you just made me think of this and smile)

          Agent Eliot Ness is standing on a Chicago bridge at night, looking out, when patrol officer Jim Malone walks up and questions him. Malone notices that Ness, apparently just a civilian in a suit, has a gun under his coat.

          Malone: OK, pal, why the mahaska? Why are you carrying the gun?

          Ness: I’m a treasury officer.

          Malone: Alright. Just remember what we talked about now.

          [Malone walks away]

          Ness: Hey, wait a minute! What the hell kind of policemen you got in this god damn city? You just turned your back on an armed man.

          Malone: You’re a treasury officer.

          Ness: How do you know that? I just told you that.

          Malone: Who would claim to be that who was not? Hmm?

    • Stev84

      I’ve read that they abolished the position that previously authorized such investigations without changing the rules to specify a new one.

    • eric

      If its a political appointee office, Congress can make sure that (a) no one fills it, and (b) all other IRS political appointees are unwilling to take initiative on this issue. It basically becomes an employment test: we’ll only approve appointees who are willing to claim it isn’t in their job description/portfolio.

  • axelbeingcivil

    I just want it to be noted that 1,600 pastors is about 0.5% of congregations in the US, at least according to Hartford Seminary College’s Institute for Religious Research.

    • Matt D

      A small spark can still start an inferno, and the price of freedom has always been eternal vigiliance.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      In some ways it’s a small number, but imagine if 0.5% of, say, meth manufacturers were publicly taunting the DEA and even making videos of themselves cooking meth to share nationwide and get more people to do it.

  • Machintelligence

    It might interest you to know that the NRA (once entirely a 501 C 3 organization) ran afoul of the no political participation clause and had to form a separate foundation for educational purposes only, so that some of the money that they received would be tax deductible. This is similar to what Planned Parenthood does to qualify for federal support, splitting out abortion services from other health care.
    I believe that the reason the churches do not want to do this is because they would have to open their books to the IRS to prove compliance.

    • UWIR

      It has become rather de rigueur for political groups to do this. Moveon.org, for instance, has two different organizations, one for political action, and the other for tax exempt activity.

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      They should have to anyway. Too many churches are operating what are really for profit activities (commercial real estate ventures, etc.) on which they should be taxed. I’m perfectly happy with letting them remain nonprofits for the religious and charity (foot pantries, homeless shelters, disaster relief, etc) portions of what they do. But that should be open to audit. I know first hand of financial improprieties involving church finances.

  • Jim Charlotte

    I agree they should be allowed to endorse political candidates… as soon as they start paying their fair share of taxes.

    • Greg G.

      That’s what I was about to say except I had in mind to use the word “long” where you used “soon”.

  • jferris

    When I attended a church, it was one I enjoyed going to. The preaching was more humanist than religious, and there was an emphasis on being good to everyone…surprisingly, even those of different (or non) beliefs. Election time came around. Was handed a “information” packet. Every elected position was discussed. But they only discussed ONE candidate, regardless of how many were running, and it listed what church the candidate went to and their record on abortion. Last time I ever attended a church. Oh, and I pretty much voted against every one of the candidates they listed.

    • UWIR

      I have a rule against voting any candidate who thinks (and to a lesser extent, whose supporters think) what church he goes to is at all relevant. I don’t have a rule against voting for Christians (who would I vote for if I did?), but I do have rule against voting for anyone who tells me they’re a Christian while listing their qualifications.

    • Stev84
    • katiehippie

      Yeah, that was pretty much my strategy, vote against whoever they wanted. it wasn’t too long after that my cognitive dissonance made my head asplode and I stopped going.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    I agree — the problem is that the law isn’t enforced.

  • Crazy Russian

    Here’s something for y’all. Legal permanent residents (Green Card holders) pay taxes like everyone else, but can’t vote because they aren’t citizens. Churches don’t pay taxes, but want to tell everybody how to vote. Something isn’t right here.

  • rick dalton

    That not only goes against the bible it also goes against the constitution. Where does these idiots come up with this stupid shit. Post where it said in the bible that congress has the right to change anything in the church or bible

    • Baby_Raptor

      Um…Who is talking about Congress changing the church or the bible? this article is about a subset of preachers who don’t want to follow laws and want to be able to preach about politics.

    • Amor DeCosmos

      What are you blathering on about?

  • UWIR

    I think that this headline is imprecise, and in a way that favors the opposing point of view. A more accurate phrasing would be “An Evangelical Group Wants Congress to Change the Law So Pastors Who Endorse Political Candidates in Church Can Still Claim Tax Exempt Status”. Maybe that’s too long, but if you have to cut it, it should be cut in a way that doesn’t eliminate the main point.

    Similarly instead of

    “Right now, U.S. law prohibits non-profit groups — including churches — from endorsing political candidates”

    It would be better to say

    “Right now, U.S. law gives tax exempt status to churches, provided that they agree to not endorse political candidates”

    If groups were allowed to both claim a religious exemption, and participate in politics, who in their right mind would organize a political organization and not claim that it’s religious? The moment religious groups are allowed to participate in politics, Eagle Forum is going to claim to be religious organization and dispense with Eagle Forum PAC. MoveOn.org, if they have any sense, will call themselves The Church of MoveOn.org, and merge their advocacy and tax exempt activities. And so on.

    • Machintelligence

      And a church is pretty much any organization that calls itself a church.
      See Church of Scientology.

    • eric

      On the plus side, we would almost certainly see a Church of Stephen Colbert. Which would likely have more members than many actual christian denominations.

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      Currently it’s the fundamentalist churches that defy the law. What will happen if all churches could legally endorse and campaign for candidates? There are a lot of liberal churches with wealthy donors. Again, the fundies living in their little fundie bubbles having really thought this through.

  • Michael Destefanis

    If they want to get so deeply involved in politics, they can start paying taxes. I’d suggest making the taxes retroactive as well. But I am in strong support of a clear separation between church and state and followers of a church tend to be more like…sheep rather than objective free thinking people who would take a candidate recommendation objectively. Voting for someone because your pastor says so? What…ignorance.

  • DougI

    Let’s see, churches can already secretly donate to candidates through anonymous PACS, so all is needed is to make it known that a church is backing a candidate. Then the candidate can reward the church with government contracts and subsidies. It works in Romania where the economy is falling apart because of a set up like this.

  • SJH

    I think this is a complicated issue. On a pastoral note, I don’t think it is appropriate for a pastor to endorse a candidate. They should educate the parishioners on the issues and let them vote their conscience.
    On the other hand, I don’t think a person/organization should have to forego their freedom of speech in order to keep their money. They provide a valuable service to our society that our government would otherwise provide. They are saving the government money and should therefor not have to pay the government to perform the same services that the government would perform.
    On the other hand, the point is well taken. We certainly don’t want churches to become a means to funnel money through to political campaigns nor do we wan politicians to start funneling money through the churches.
    I’m sure there is a way that we can craft our laws such that our citizens retain their freedoms and at the same time are allowed to operate in a way that does not turn it into political money shuffling.
    We are a creative people. We can think of something.

    • David Kopp

      Really? I wonder what proportion of the money that churches take in actually goes to charity. Because those gigantic buildings, ostentatious crosses, water features, etc. don’t just create themselves. It may be true of some congregations, but I’m not sure a blanket, no-questions-asked-because-you’re-a-church policy is a good one.

      • Derrik Pates

        Not that it’s representative of churches in general, but I remember seeing a Reddit posting about a guy who looked at the books for the church his mom attended (and did the books for). The total amount of their monthly proceeds that went to anything charitable was a whopping 2.1%. It was not a megachurch, but I’d be surprised if most megachurches went beyond single-digit percentages either – operating and maintaining a building that huge (and of course, financing the extravagant lifestyles their worship leaders often lead) is expensive.

    • Baby_Raptor

      There’s nothing complicated about it. Churches, and religion in general, have a specific agenda; one that is often counter to and harmful to the greater good. They already have enough venues to do their damage.

      And really? Not being allowed to say one thing in one specific capacity is “giving up their freedom of speech”? Please think about that. Nobody is telling these people that they cannot endorse certain politicians or agendas. Nobody is telling them that they cannot talk to their followers about same. All that’s illegal is doing so in the pulpit. And it’s illegal for a very specific reason.

    • eric

      “On the other hand, I don’t think a person/organization should have to forego their freedom of speech in order to keep their money.”
      They would not forego their freedom of speech. True, some would have to sell their properties and move to less costly premises, but any preacher can still speak their mind in their homes, on the street, and in any less posh establishment their organization can afford on after-tax proceeds. And hey, there’s the internet. That soapbox probably costs less than most church monthly air condititioning bills, so any church that can currently afford AC could afford speech via outreach that doesn’t require a building at all.

    • Spuddie

      Is it the job function of clergy to provide political education? No.

      Churches get tax exempt status as a sign that religion is something which should not be subject to political whims nor should it become entangled with them. When churches forgo such things, they become PACs and should pay taxes.

      Sloganeering using religious (sectarian) appeal such as “vote for God, vote for X” is seen by the majority as an abuse of religious authority, completely tasteless and disrespectful of faith. When they do that sort of thing, they reduce themselves to political committees and need to be treated like them.

  • JET

    Why don’t we just be done with it and jump straight back to the middle ages when all the church and government officials were in each others… uh… pockets.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Laws are only for non-Christers, apparently.

    Why can’t they just follow the rules?

    • Amor DeCosmos

      Christians follow The Law of God – they don’t need to follow silly laws invented by human beings.

  • Garret Shane Brown

    Isn’t the best solution to just tax the churches? Then the pastors get to share their political beliefs openly.

    • iamfantastikate

      And what happens when they start thinking of themselves as a political party, not merely a faith, and chanting, “No taxation without representation!”?

      • Garret Shane Brown

        Well, they would technically be represented because they can vote. I think I’m missing your point.

        • iamfantastikate

          We all know that wouldn’t be enough for them. They’d want “their people” in political seats. And even though the Republican Party is, for the most part, the “Christian Party” right now, I believe if churches are taxed, they’ll want that to be even clearer. There would be a subtle but important difference between our present world of “that’s a good Christian Republican there” to one of “that’s a good Christian there.” We don’t want political parties that are religions, and I think taxing churches could be a good way to make that happen.

          I love the idea of churches being taxed because the revenue gotten from that would be amazing for any society, but I think not taxing them is perhaps a part of the separation of church and state. Politically embedding ourselves in churches allows them to embed themselves in politics; they already do that enough.

  • fjpor

    No way, no how, no time. IF you want this then you MUST immediately pay taxes on everything you own, sell, collect, do in any, way shape or form. If you want to play then you MUST PAY – and I like the one post for making this retroactive.l

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    They are perfectly welcome to change their status to allow political endorsements, but that means giving up nonprofit status. I’m perfectly fine with that.

  • dan10things

    Apparently this pastor wants to make people hate going to church even more by throwing in political campaigning. I’m fine with it if they start paying taxes.

  • Brian Adler

    They’ll love it right up until they realize that the law applies to African-American pastors as well. This always happens. They freaked out when laws intended to protect the existence of religious school clubs were then used to force schools to recognize clubs for gay students and atheist/agnostic students. In Louisiana a legislator was horrified when she realized a law she helped to pass allowing school vouchers for religious schools also applied to Muslim schools. If they get this law, they’ll hate it as soon as inner-city black churches start using it to promote Democrats.


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