The race is on for the White House and it began with excitement last week in Iowa. Tomorrow it's New Hampshire's turn, and on February 5, "Super Tuesday," near half of the country will be voting to select the Democratic and Republican nominees. With one of the most open races in recent history many Christians are still undecided, and some are looking to their church and pastors for direction. Should the church wade into the murky waters of politics? And if it does what is the risk? Allen R. Bevere, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Cambridge, Ohio, and contributor to RedBlueChristian.com, has written to share what a church is legally allowed to do in this political season.
The Associated Press has reported that several pastors in Iowa, who have publicly supported Governor Mike Huckabee for President have received anonymous letters warning them that their churches are in danger of losing their nonprofit status. The fact that the letters are anonymous means that they are probably from someone opposed to Huckabee, who wants to silence these ministers who support him.
There is great misunderstanding, even in government, as to what tax-exempt status does and does not mean in reference to what churches are and are not allowed to say and do when it comes to politics and elections in particular.
First, for some history:
Historically there was no law in the United States restricting any church or other nonprofit organization from endorsing or opposing a candidate for political office.
In 1954, after being opposed by a nonprofit organization, then Senator Lyndon Johnson proposed legislation prohibiting nonprofits from either opposing or endorsing any candidate (which did not and still does not apply to appointed offices such as Supreme Court Justices). The code was amended without debate. Since that time, the political landscape has changed.
So, exactly what is it that pastors and churches are allowed to do politically?
Churches may not directly endorse or oppose a political candidate. The key word is "directly." No church may officially say, "We endorse Jane Doe." "We oppose John Doe." In addition, the pastor should not send out a personal written endorsement on church letterhead. Political signs should not be displayed on the lawn of the church. "Indirect" participation is allowed and includes the following:
1. Pastors may personally endorse a candidate. The office of pastor does not exclude clergy from expressing their personal views. Everyone has that right. The IRS explicitly states that, while a pastor may endorse or oppose a candidate in the parking lot of the church or in the local grocery store in conversation, he or she may not directly endorse or oppose a candidate from the pulpit. There are many who believe, however, that such a view is unconstitutional. At the very least it is problematic from a polity standpoint in that, even in the pulpit, most pastors do not speak officially for their congregations.
2.Pastors may also personally work for a candidate and contribute financially to his or her campaign. No church may contribute to a campaign.
3. Pastors may even endorse a candidate in print, such as in a newspaper ad. The pastor's title and the church s/he is affiliated with may also be listed for the purposes of identification.
4. Pastors may also preach on moral and social issues (abortion, gay marriage, economic matters, etc.) which, depending on the pastor's views, may by implication throw support behind one candidate over another. It is wise, however, not to connect any one candidate to any one position during the sermon. Churches may also take official positions on such issues, as long as they don't directly endorse or oppose a candidate in the process.