Should we lift the ban on churches endorsing political candidates?

I just read an article about a report from the office of Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican from the state of Iowa.  Even though most Americans favor the prohibition against churches being able to endorse political candidates (a fact that surprised me), he wants the ban lifted.

I’m a little torn on this.  Let me explain why…

First, the most fundamentalist churches are already endorsing political candidates.  Let’s not pretend otherwise.  What this might do though is allow some of the more liberal churches (the ones which, in my view, are more attuned to a sense of personal ethics than a “win at all cost” service to their church/faith) to also endorse political candidates.  So while I don’t think there would be much change in Tea Party church land, I think we might see a change for the candidates I like.

Second, not paying taxes as a church is a product of the separation of church and state.  If you want to play politics, you get to pay taxes (assuming the IRS does its job, which it hasn’t been doing in that regard).  Having churches pay taxes may seem like a great thing, but it would come at the price of taking a chunk out of the wall of separation of church and state.  It does not excite me to dole out exeptions to the separation of church and state.  Sure, the USA would have an immediate influx of funds, but it will mean churches getting their grimy hands over governance.  Over time, as its used for a precedent, that chunk could become something larger and I’m not ok with that.  Ultimately, I’d just as soon keep church and state as separate as possible, and there’s already more intrusion of religion into politics than I think is decent.  I’m not eager to have more.

Of course, churches already do have the grimy hands involved in governance, just not overtly.  I’m not sure how much being open about all of it would change anything (see my first point).  I’m not sure where I stand on this.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Loqi

    No representation without taxation. It’s time to render unto Ceasar you holy slimeballs.

  • Savoy47

    This would permit extortion. If you are a believer and are told that you will be tortured for eternity if you don’t vote for god’s (read preacher’s) choice of candidate, that threat is real to you. How is that any different than “If you don’t vote for my candidate I’ll kick your ass every time I see you?

  • Zinc Avenger

    I’m inclined to see the surprising support of Americans for churches to be kept from endorsing political candidates as a sign of how strongly they’d feel compelled to vote against their own judgement if their church endorsed a different candidate.

  • YesDavisIsMyFirstName

    Hmmm, I agree that this is a messy problem. “Allow” the churches to pay taxes and they may assume they have some say in how that money is spent. On the other hand… If they don’t pay taxes, they spend their money however they want, including promoting various candidates that align with their views. I think if we waited a few years (as all indicators point to the decline in the stranglehold of religion) it might be time to start taxing churches. Their reach is too deep atm. I guess I advocate the long view on this one.

  • Zach High-Leggett

    I’m Canadian, so my understanding of American tax law is a bit sketchy, but couldn’t you allow churches who don’t want to pay taxes to retain their 501.c(3) status (just like any secular charity) without violating separation of church and state, so long as they don’t endorse political candidates?

  • unbound55

    It’s one thing for the churches to be preaching about supporting certain candidates and being intermittently prosecuted. It would be something quite different to open the flood-gates of not only churches, but all 501(c)(3) organizations (which is what the report recommends). It would also render other portions of the tax code irrelevant since there would not really be any need for 527 organizations anymore, which would make the existing transparency issues substantially worse since who knows how much of the church or 501(c)(3)’s money is being spent towards political candidates.

    I see this as nothing more than a scheme to allow large donations for political candidates to flow through large churches so that we’ll have no idea what is pushed by who. It’s a bad idea, and I’m sure I’m missing more than this.

  • Jeff

    Being exempt from tax responsibility is a privilege. Like other privileges, it has to be earned or traded for in some way. Being allowed to operate a car on public roads is a privilege that must be earned by demonstrating knowledge of traffic laws and ability to operate a motorized vehicle. Being allowed to open a business and earn money through it is a privilege that must be earned by obtaining a business license (and continued possession of that license is in turn traded for by forfeiting a certain amount of control over how you operate that business and who that business serves). Being exempt from taxes is a privilege that must be traded for by voluntarily rescinding portions of your right to free speech.

    There’s no reason a religious organization can’t form itself under some other portion of the tax code, like as a corporation or LLC or what have you. Those groups are more free to speak on behalf of candidates or issues than non-profit groups are. A church would not have to change anything about its religious practices if it chose to be counted as a corporation as opposed to a charity. But to allow them to retain their tax-exempt status AND all the free speech rights of a private citizen would be to give them many benefits and no drawbacks.

  • Grotoff

    Churches are already involved in politics. The negatives you have identified already exist. Let’s remove the facade and start taxing those bastards.

  • Sara Sharick

    AHA posted about this this morning. I left this in the thread:

    “It’s one thing to preach about a general topic. It’s another thing entirely to use the unverifiable afterlife status you’ve convinced people exists to manipulate them into voting for things and people that have verifiable consequences.”

    I’m with JT on this one. I’d rather see the IRS enforce the law as it is than have them pay taxes. Once they pay taxes, they sort of de facto become entitled to things beyond basic Constitutional protections.

  • stop2wonder

    The problem here is that the current system also already blurs the line of church/state separation by giving religious organizations tax benefits not available to other charities such as the full disclosure exemption. Churches don’t have to open their books like other charities.

    The solution is simple. Treat them just like other charities. They can sign up as a charitable organization, and take on all benefits and limitations thereof, or they can sign up as a business, not get the benefits or limitations, but pay taxes.

  • iknklast

    Taxing churches is not a violation of separation of church and state; not taking them is, as it gives them monetary support, and it is done with the purpose of promoting the “preaching of the gospel”. Not taxing churches amounts to a 70 billion dollar a year subsidy on churches. Very little of this goes to charity; I have no problem with churches having tax free status on money that is used to feed the hungry or homeless, or help people who have been in a disaster. But most of their money is used for promoting religion, and we all have to pay higher taxes when one entity is given a break. So we are paying for the churches, and this is a violation of church and state.

  • EvolutionKills

    Short answer: No

    Long answer: HELL NO!

  • baal

    “but it would come at the price of taking a chunk out of the wall of separation of church and state. ”

    I’m not so sure. I can think of several factors to consider. Having churches pay taxes would regularize them to the same standards as other non-profit clubs. Once getting paid is in the question the background forces lean towards greater financial transparency. Zombie churches (cancerous growths not subject to normal pruning) would have a much harder time staying afloat. That’d free up some lands / buildings for more productive use (and herd zombie christians to more lively churches or to give it up).

    The net for me would be to ‘entangle’ church and state at the same level as NPR (at worst).