IRS Should Not Keep Churches Out of Politics

The IRS shouldn’t be able to use taxes to muzzle pulpit political speech.

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Who is in charge of the pulpit? The church or the IRS? That is the question that recently led me and other pastors to deliver sermons on the subject of the upcoming elections, despite tax rules used to stifle speech about candidates. The sermons were part of a broader effort, the Alliance Defense Fund's Pulpit Initiative, which is designed to protect pastors' First Amendment rights.

I wish to be clear from the outset. I have no desire to turn my pulpit into a Christian version of the Chicago political machine. My church will not be writing large checks to candidates, or to anyone else for that matter. We have plenty to do educating Christians about tithing to support the church, let alone political campaigns.

I have no intention of selecting my sermon topics by watching CNN or Fox News. I have no secret dream of becoming president or even running for dogcatcher. To suggest, as some have, that somehow we are being seduced by political power or that we are looking to government to be America's "savior" is silliness. And no, the Pulpit Initiative is not about encouraging pastors to endorse candidates from the pulpit.

Free speech. The purpose of the Pulpit Initiative is to restore the right of pastors to speak freely from the pulpit without fear of punishment by the government for doing what churches do: speak on any number of cultural and societal issues from a biblical perspective. Christians believe that civil government owes its existence to God and is therefore accountable to him to behave righteously in serving the common good. A significant role of the church is—and always has been—to encourage the civil magistrate to do what is good and not what is evil.

The Internal Revenue Service has placed itself in the role of evaluating the content of a pastor's sermon to determine if the message is "political." We need to ask: Where did this authority come from? And why should Americans be willing to submit to this unconstitutional power grab without even a whimper? Why are pastors the only people who have allowed the IRS to censor their First Amendment rights for a tax exemption they have enjoyed since the founding of our nation—a tax exemption that existed long before the IRS did?

Erik Stanley, the head of the Pulpit Initiative, has rightly pointed out that pastors spoke freely about the policy positions of candidates for elective office throughout American history, even endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit, without anyone ever questioning whether churches should remain tax exempt. It was commonplace—even expected—for pastors to speak in support of or in opposition to candidates until the tax code was amended in 1954 with no legislative analysis or debate.

Churches are tax exempt because they are churches, not because the government decided to bless them with a "subsidy." The church is not a profit-making business or individual. It is not getting a pass on taxes; it is simply outside the government's appropriate tax base.

Secularists often create a false sacred/secular dichotomy that conveniently silences our message. While it's true that pastors need to stop letting others tell us to keep Jesus inside of the church and out of the world he died to redeem, this particular battle is about whether we as pastors even have the right to speak as we feel led to within our own four walls.

The Pulpit Initiative is not about promoting political parties or agendas or establishing a "theocracy." It's about our right to bring kingdom principles and solutions to bear on contemporary social problems if we so choose. A pastor may choose not to, but it's the pastor's choice, not the choice of the IRS.

If we cannot discuss any and all topics, including those the IRS may deem "political," even within our communities of faith, we will become what Martin Luther King Jr. called an "irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority."

Simply put, it's time for the church to be the church.

Ron Johnson Jr. is the senior associate pastor of the Living Stones Fellowship Church in Crown Point, Ind.