A Church Should Not Be a Political Machine

The IRS affords great leeway about what preachers may and may not say from the pulpit.

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By SHARE

Most Americans who go to church expect to hear about salvation, morality, and scripture. They don't anticipate hardball political endorsements.

Congress made it clear in 1954 that nonprofit groups, religious or secular, may not endorse or oppose any candidate for public office.

That doesn't mean pastors, priests, rabbis, or imams cannot criticize government policies. It doesn't mean clergy cannot express views on specific pieces of legislation or ballot initiatives. Nor does it even mean they cannot participate in partisan political activities in their own personal capacity.

What it does signify is that pastors cannot make declarations to favor or oppose any candidate from the pulpit. They cannot take money from the collection plate and give it to support a candidate. And if they want to participate in any partisan activity in their personal capacity, they must make sure it is done in a manner indicating it is separate from their religious institution.

Put simply, the tax code prevents religious institutions from serving as political machines, a concept in keeping with the separation of church and state our founding fathers envisioned.

Now a group called the Alliance Defense Fund is working to alter that vision. The group recently urged pastors around the country to violate tax law and promote candidates from the pulpit. Thirty-three pastors participated. But we all know churches in America are already free to engage in religious speech. Tax law doesn't take that freedom away.

We know this because the Revs. Jerry Falwell (on the right) and William Sloane Coffin (on the left) weren't silenced from speaking from the pulpit on moral issues. And the regulation never prohibited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from speaking passionately of the need for social change in our country—while never once endorsing a candidate from the pulpit.

It's clear that the law as it is provides those of us in the clergy with an astounding amount of freedom to express a wide array of opinions from the pulpit. But we cannot turn sermons into political ads for candidates, nor should we have that "freedom." In a recent survey on this issue, 87 percent of Americans agreed that pastors shouldn't endorse candidates during worship services. Americans clearly see that churches should not become cogs in anybody's political machine.

Church schisms. Americans also recognize politics can split congregations.

Take, for example, the church in Waynesville, N.C., where the Rev. Chan Chandler told congregants during a sermon in October 2004, "If you vote for John Kerry this year, you need to repent or resign." This comment tore apart the congregation, initially leading to the ouster of nine Democratic members. Following a congregational meeting, they were invited back to the church and Chandler was forced to resign.

More recently at High Point Church in Arlington, Texas, Pastor Gary Simons showed a video that depicted the views of Barack Obama and John McCain on abortion. His sermon gave God's alleged view on abortion and told the congregation how to vote accordingly. Some congregants said the pastor seemed to be comparing Obama to King Herod, the biblical monarch who ordered the mass murder of infants. Several members just walked out.

Frankly, a tax exemption is a privilege, not a right. The IRS can strip a church of its tax exemption for egregious violations of law. It did just that to the Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y. In 1992, the church spent $44,000 on an ad in USA Today that called Bill Clinton a sinner and warned Christians against voting for him. The congregation contested the revocation in court but lost at every level. Not one judge agreed the church had some sort of "free speech" or "free exercise" right to engage in partisan activities.

This is not a First Amendment concern but a ploy for groups like the Alliance Defense Fund to use churches to push a political agenda. If a church doesn't want to follow IRS law, it can refuse the tax exemption. But churches that want this privilege have to play by the same rules as everyone else.