Church-state sin? Who cares?

obama Reporter Molly Ball of the Las Vegas Review Journal scooped the national press on a major political story Sunday. While covering the presidential campaign of Democratic candidate Barack Obama, Ball reported that a pastor endorsed Obama from the pulpit (Hat tip to Spiritual Politics):

Before he arrived, the pastor of the Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ, speaking from the pulpit, advocated for Obama, possibly breaking the law. Pastor Leon Smith told the congregation that “the more he (Obama) speaks, the more he wins my confidence, and … if the polls were open today, I would cast my vote for this senator.”

He urged them to do the same, saying, “If you can’t support your own, you’re never going to get anywhere. … I want to see this man in office.”

Some reporters might have let the matter end there. To her credit, Ball gave readers the appropriate context of the endorsement: it was likely illegal.

Under federal tax law, nonprofits such as churches are prohibited from endorsing or opposing political candidates. The Internal Revenue Service has ruled that the forbidden partisan activity includes speech from the pulpit that indicates the church favors a particular candidate.

The campaign said the pastor simply had made supportive statements about Obama’s record. The church could not be reached late Sunday.

My only complaint with Ball’s story was that the Review Journal downplayed it. Her scoop did not appear in the story until the sixteenth paragraph and is not mentioned at all in the headline or sub-headline. I don’t get it. A Christian pastor endorsed a leading presidential candidate from the pulpit, and the local paper doesn’t give the story top billing?

Of course, this criticism is relative. None of the major newspapers reported that the pastor likely violated federal law. Either Adam Nagourney or Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times attended the same church service as Ball, though it’s unclear if Nagourney or Zeleny was in attendance when the pastor made his remarks. The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, the The Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Globe each failed to mention that Obama attended the service Sunday.

The national press’ silence on the likely church-state violation raises numerous questions. How did the reporters miss it? Were fewer reporters working the beat because it was a Sunday? Were the reporters uncertain or ignorant of IRS laws? Are conservatives correct when they claim that it’s OK when Democrats violate church-state regulations, but not when Republicans do?

As things stand, Molly Ball has written a major politics and religion story in 2008, and one that her own paper underplayed.

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  • Stephen A.

    Clear violation. Period.

    Hear those crickets? That’s the mass media.

    This morning, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough pounded reporter David Schuster for bashing Republican candidates for being in churches, while ignoring Obama doing the same thing. Schuster literally threw up his hands and said he was “boxed in” by Joe’s comments. Bias definitely exists here.

    On the other hand, Gov. Huckabee just said he wanted to “amend the Constitution so it’s in God standards.” Yikes.

  • Chris Duckworth

    I agree with you – this seems to be a blatant violation of the law, a violation that gets more press when Republicans do it than when Democrats do it. However . . .

    The black church has a longstanding tradition of political involvement. Set within the black church’s role as a civic broker, this pastor’s endorsement of Obama makes more sense. Perhaps it doesn’t make it any more legal, but this is a bigger story than just one about church-state violations. Any coverage of this story must reference the long history of civil rights and the black church’s role in advocacy and political involvement.

    The reporter also dropped this little bomb at the end of that section about Obama’s church visit:

    Obama spoke to the congregation of more than 400 for more than 20 minutes. He told them about his home congregation in Chicago and his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who is somewhat controversial for his black-separatist views.

    Wait a minute!!! I had just gotten over the fact that Obama is NOT a Muslim (thank you Washington Post), and now I hear that he worships in a church led by a pastor with “black-separatist views”? Without any context, these words make Obama sound like a Black Panther, a radical! And the church in question – Trinity United Church of God – is the largest congregation in an overwhelmingly white main line denomination, where UCC history and theology are taught as part of its new member classes! Pastor Jeremiah Wright is surely controversial, but his ministry and Obama’s relationship to it merits more than one sentence.

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  • Chris Duckworth

    Obama worships, and Jeremiah Wright is pastor, at Trinity United Church of Christ . . . sorry for the typo.

  • tmatt

    Folks, search for the pastor’s name here at GetReligion and you will see that there are several major posts on the topic, already.

    Go for it:

  • TJefferson

    Of course her paper downplayed it. No White (or Black) editor in his right mind is going to touch the sacrosanct right of Black churches to flaunt their tax-exempt status and politic all they want.

  • Mike Perry

    I fret less about the “illegality” of this than many. Do we really want to live in a country where the pastors can’t make clear that they’d never vote for someone like Hitler? And what does it say about the intelligence of the press that they assume that they have a right, endorsing or condemning candidates, that they would deny to other public figures? What makes them better than others? It certainly can’t be good sense. Clinton was in the White House for many months before they figured out he was a liar. I knew it the first time I heard him speak.

    In the early 1930s, German Protestant pastors did less than nothing to stop the rise of Hitler. As a result, rural, Protestant northern Germany provided the heaviest block vote for the Nazis in the country, with some 70% of them voting for Hitler. In contrast, in Catholic Bavaria, where the farmers were in a similar economic plight, Catholic leaders were blunt in warning that no good Catholic voted Nazis. (Like our press, the German press yelped about that.) The result was that in many Bavarian farming communities there were either no votes for the Nazis or a single vote that historians, knowing the enthusiasm Volkschule teachers had for Nazism, assign to that public school teacher.

    In short, we shouldn’t have a schoolboy attitude that the law knows more about right and wrong than we do. The 1950s-era tax law about non-profits bans political endorsements, I’m told, because LBJ wanted it that way. I do not think the attitude of one of the most corrupt, dishonest politicians who ever went to DC, should inform our views about what’s right and wrong.

    In addition, I find this pastoral remark far more disturbing:

    He urged them to do the same, saying, “If you can’t support your own, you’re never going to get anywhere.

    In other words, blacks should always vote for blacks in order to “get anywhere,” which must mean that as President Obama is expected to favor blacks over whites in signing legislation, in awarding positions in government and in giving out lucrative contracts. He will not be the President of all the people, but of one slice of America. Note too that Obama apparently didn’t have any problem with that remark. Judging by his silence, that’s apparently what he intends to do.

    That’s racism, pure and simple. It’s immoral, it’s unconstitutional, and it’s even illegal. And keep in mind that, if Obama and his supporters can do it, so can any other group that likes to whine and allege grievances. The press may give Obama’s game a pass, debate Hillary’s similar appeal to women, and condemn Huckabee’s religious game, but it’s all the same, “I’m better because I’m a FILL IN THE BLANK like you” appeal. That will turn this country into a mess.

    Yes, Obama isn’t the only one playing this foul game. Hillary is in trouble because, although trying as hard as she can, she can’t manage juggle two politically correct grievance groups at the same time. She gets weepy for women but makes some vague and historically inaccurate remark that gives Obama’s black supporters a nasty excuse to go after her. The same can be said of Huckabee, who seems to have been way over his head, ethically and otherwise, as governor of a small state. He’s trying to play the evangelical ‘religion card’ to get votes by calling on preachers for a bit of help just like Obama’s doing in this instance. The most disgusting thing in this election are the lengths some candidates seem to be willing to go to get to the top of the pile.

    All this is nonsense. We should just candidates by their character, their competence and what they believe. Most certainly, we shouldn’t judge them by how well they pretend to play the “I’m one of you” game, that the press seems to love to cover this election cycle. Perhaps the most discouraging thing about this election is that I can’t think of a single candidate who seems to care more about the country than about his (or her) own petty political career. And come to think of it, I can’t recall a news story that looks at that either. The news coverage is almost exclusively about identity politics and appeals to this group or that group. Our journalists seem as empty-headed as our politicians.

  • Asinus Gravis

    The IRS has investigated and punished both liberal and conservative ministers/churches that have violated their tax-exempt status as charities. Well they should!

    Any minister/church that wants to openly politic in their official religious capacity can, and should, forfeit their tax-exempt charitable status.

    The offence in this case was that Pastor Smith made his endorsement in his official capacity as a minister, and did it in the church of which he was the minister. Had he made an endorsement as a private citizen in his own home (or in some other non-church supported space), without identifying himself as the minister, or using church property in the process, he would not have violated the IRS rules.

  • webwalker

    Mike Perry:

    Exactly what did your blathering rant have to do with HOW THE STORY WAS COVERED?

    This is about reporting, not politics. This is not a forum for you to vent your spleen about how citizens decided to cast their ballot. Its about the reporting.

    FWIW: It seems that the MSM is are lost with a far left Christian like Obama who goes to church, speaks of a conversion experience, any otherwise fails to fit the mold. tmatt, do you think this is an editorial issue, or does it start at the reporter in this case?

  • Eric Chaffee

    Many thanks to Mike Perry, who gives me hope that America may yet be able to think its way through this election cycle.


  • Dennis Colby

    A “major” story? Okay, hands up: who had heard of Pastor Leon Smith before this story appeared? A major local story, maybe, but I guess that depends on whether the IRS is going to follow up. Having been in more than one church where this particular line was crossed, I can’t imagine it’s all that rare.

  • tmatt


    GR has been calling for more coverage of the RELIGIOUS beliefs on the religious left since the day we opened for business. A true evangelical left is the next stage, after that.

    I, frankly, do not know quite what is going on with this lack of coverage.

  • Will

    Anybody remember the Ed Rollins “scandal”? As far as I can make out, the accusation was that Rollins had paid off black clergy NOT to do what, when done by white Catholics or white “fundamentalists” is called “interfering in politics” or “violating the separation of church and state”.

    Just keep repeating “There is no liberal media… no liberal media …..”

  • Tracy Hall Jr

    When an alert citizen observes political intervention by a tax-exempt 501 c 3 religious organization, the citizen may wish to send a letter to the IRS similar to this model:

    Linda E. Stiff
    Acting Commissioner
    Internal Revenue Service
    1111 Constitution Ave NW
    Washington, DC 20224

    Dear Commissioner Stiff:

    [Name organization and its officers, give their addresses, and report the political intervention activities observed]

    Accordingly, I request that the IRS take the following action:

    (1) Initiate tax inquiry proceedings with [organization] under IRC section 7611 to determine whether its tax-exempt status should be revoked;

    (2) Determine whether [organization] and any of its managers should be assessed taxes under section 4955 based on the organization’s political expenditures; and

    (3) Notify [organization] of its intention to seek an injunction, pursuant to IRC section 7409, if the organization’s flagrant political campaign activities do not cease immediately.

    Respectfully, [printed name],[signature, date],[address, phone, email]

    (Derived from the following:,%202006%20Complaint.pdf )