Politics from the Pulpit
Can a church support a presidential candidate without jeopardizing its tax-exempt status?

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.

January 07, 2008

Displaying 1–10 of 14 comments

David Flavell

January 17, 2008  6:30pm

Here in England there are no restrictions on what I can say in the pulpit. I would have thought that freedom of speech was more important than tax breaks, and that if pastors really felt called to make a stand they should do so and take the IRS consequences. You all left England for low taxes or religious freedom - perhaps you can't make up your mind which you really prefer? ps I'll be endorsing Barack Obama from the pulpit, even though we don't get to vote. Let me tell you that if we did, then George Bush would not have won.

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January 16, 2008  12:51pm

Because we are ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ we cannot keep ourselves out of politics. Political matters are our business. I am speaking here of politics and political matters in a fundamental way, meaning the base of power and authority to take action in the world. The problem with "Christians" in politics is not that we are or are not involved enough, but rather that we stop short of asserting our true political power in bringing all power and dominion (including our own) under Christ's authority. We are weak only because we acquiesce to a system that is designed to not allow truth to reign. For ministers this means being intentional about EVERY ASPECT of our political stance, not simply picking and choosing our pet issue(s). Notice how quickly this thread has turned to "right vs. left". What drives that? It's the system we assume we have to be working with in. The process is setup in such a manner to force false choice. And false choice is no choice at all. Where is my candidate? Where is the one who affirms all life? Where is the one who the one who transcends "party" lines for what is "good and right"? I'm tired of picking the "lessor of two evils." My candidates credentials are too high. Meantime, I'll pray for the evil elected that we might do more good than harm. I'll save the pulpit for the One who is worthy of endorsement.

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January 16, 2008  7:01am

I find it amazing that the more right-wing (and therefore deeply political) ministers and people are, the quicker they are to cry, "Keep politics out of the pulpit!" the moment there is biblically-based criticism of their policies! It takes enormous effort to ignore the fact that Jesus' message and actions were a critical foundation with the systems and structures of his day - and he was certainly no supporter of the status quo! Blessings.

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January 14, 2008  11:38am

Lee, You state, and I quote you... "Rulers rule only by His authority. In America 'we the people' are the government. Every Christian must be involved in government because we are the government." So...I'm thinking...who is this "we" you speak of...does that include Muslims, Mormons, Catholics, Buddhists, Shinto's, Pagan's (whatever that is these days), atheists, etc? Or are you referring to that heretical doctrine called Dominionism whereas the "we" being christians who are the ones in "authority"?

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January 11, 2008  8:36pm

Pastors most certainly should be involved in the election of candidates. Romans 13:1-7 reveals that God raises up government. Rulers rule only by His authority. In America 'we the people' are the government. Every Christian must be involved in government because we are the government. It is our duty to be involved. The primary reason our nation is in the bad shape it is in is because Christians have dropped out of public policy. And the simplest and yet most profound way to elevate moral candidates is to teach the Constitution. And elect the most constitutional candidates. Let's stop hiding behind the 501c3 curtain.

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Christine Ballard

January 10, 2008  10:58pm

No church or pastor should endorse any candidate in any election anytime. The job of the church is to preach the gospel, not endorse political candidates or support political causes, whether the candidate has views you agree with or not. The only thing the church should do is to pray - as endorsed in scripture - for those in government.

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John Germaine

January 08, 2008  2:05pm

Thanks for the insights, Allan. I would add two things: first, the non-partisan voters guides are seldom so, second it is my understanding that a pastor or church can advocate for issues, such as a mental health levy.

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January 08, 2008  12:26pm

I think that the good Pastor Bevere should look beyond the "legal vs illegal" posturing and look at the overall effect of what it does to the church. If Pastor Bevere, along with all Pastor's who like to swing the O'l Political gavel while holding court in Church to a CAPTIVE AUDIENCE which undoubtedly contains quite a few of those who are young in the lord, and therefore SUSCEPTIBLE TO UNSCRUPULOUS spiritual manipulation should remember this simple, and yet profound statement...which, oddly enough, is found in the bible...Proverb's 14:12, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but that way leads to death." Which may also mean the death of someone else they had no intention of dying. And if that doesn't sink in, perhaps, "Man's ways are not G-d's ways" will focus the previous statement more. The next time you, a pastor, feels the need to embark on a political crusade for whatever reason, give a good deal of thought to the one law we're still living under...THE LAW OF UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES! "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

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Richard Dennis Miller

January 08, 2008  9:41am

A quick Google search reveals news stories about Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem holding a rally for Hillary Clinton and the United Church of Christ in Hartford holding a rally for Barak Obama. These churches officially endorsed the candidates. So, may we please retire the myth that Christian Conservatives are endangering our sacred separation of church and state? Politically Liberal pastors are at least as bold about their politics as Conservatives, probably more. Certainly, if Barak Obama wins the Democratic nomination, he will be the darling of the Emergent and Sojourners et. al. Class warfare rhetoric (known as covetousness in Biblical terms) will play well with them. Depending on who the Republican nominee is, we could see the first clear cut, high profile battle between the so called religious left (Campolo, wallis, etc.) and the religious right, (what is left of it anyway). It turns out that liberal theology and liberal politics go hand in hand and vice versa.

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January 08, 2008  8:45am

Is the issue really about tax exempt status? The issue seems to be whether or not a pastor can stand behind the pulpit and say this guy is God's guy and this guy isn't. When Fox news or CNN is shaping our world view more than God's Word. We need to be a voice to our government, but it is hard to be a prophetic voice when we have drawn party lines. We watch as the conservative voice is now dismissed because it is aligned with the "Religious Right" and there is also the Religious Left. We need to transcend politics and party lines. We hold all leaders accountable, but it can't be done shouting across party lines. What is it if we gain the whole world and lose our own soul?

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