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 editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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