Is Your Political Organization A Church?

Is Your Political Organization A Church? July 18, 2022

Political organizations making religious claims is nothing new in the United States. The role of religion in public life has been, is, and will be debated as long as the US exists. It is due to our particular denial of congressional power in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Congress is forbidden to establish a national religion. The United States guarantees the right to freedom of and from religion. Practice your religion. Just don’t make your neighbor practice it too. It sounds simple. But the application of the principle is always the problem.

No National Church

Some people argue the first amendment means there can be no national church. The country can be generically Christian so long as no denomination is given official status. The amendment has very careful wording. The words are “an establishment of religion.” Any national church would imply Christianity had some official status. Our first amendment takes away any concrete excuse for claiming the United States has an official faith. The United Kingdom is Christian. The United States is not. If it was then there would be a host of congressional laws regarding collection for payments of clergy salaries. An established church would imply an established creed. And so on.

Political Churches

Where I live we are experiencing the development of so-called “patriot churches.” I can say they are heretical. Congress cannot. These are political churches by definition. According to an article in ProPublica, political organizations that were once registered as charities are being granted “church status” by the IRS. These groups include the Family Research Council, Liberty Counsel, and the American Family Association. Then there is also the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association which was granted church status in 2015.

The IRS form 990 that charities must file annually is a report of how the money collected is being spent. Churches are not subject to that filing. There is no required transparency for Churches. However, many churches choose to be transparent to their members and are required to be with their denominational leadership. Many church budgets hide the salaries of individual staff members by lumping them all into one category. Churches are bad about hiding “the Lord’s money.” I suspect the political churches will be worse.

Tax Churches?

Donations to political organizations are not tax deductible. Donations to churches are. This is a windfall for major donors to political churches. The minor donors will also benefit some. But giving church status to organizations that give platforms to select politicians is dangerous to democracy. It is another form of dark money financing.

Churches are not allowed to endorse candidates. But they are allowed to advocate on issues. Many clergy take to social media to remind people “what the Bible says” about an issue. They give a “pocket endorsement” to candidates in this way. It is a fine line to toe. But these clergy members know exactly what they are doing. Any denial is dishonesty on their part.

Is it time to tax churches? Maybe so. But the megachurches will be able to handle it. Smaller churches will feel the burden more. It is a difficult question. Progressive Christians may be shooting themselves in the foot calling for it. But it is tempting.

Political Action

If I feed the homeless when I am told by the government not to, I am taking a political action. I may claim it is mercy. But by defying the law, I commit a political act. Churches cannot avoid acting in ways that appear political to someone. The Kingdom is political. It is not a polity. When we attempt to influence secular affairs, we are participating in the polity of the state. This is an important distinction we miss.

Church members are also citizens within the secular polity. They take political action by voting their conscience. Attempting to influence Christian conscience to serve secular and economic powers is against Jesus. This is what FRC and other organizations do. They are against what Jesus advocates and for what he opposes. That is heresy. I get to say that. Congress and the IRS do not get to say it. But they should not give them a special status reserved for religious bodies.

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