January 7, 2008
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.
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.
5. Churches may organize voter registrations and drives as long as they are directed at all eligible voters and not only toward voters of one political party.
6. Churches may hold forums where candidates address the issues.
7. If a candidate visits a church during worship, he or she may be introduced publicly.
8. Churches may host candidates who may speak from the pulpit, as long as that candidate is not directly endorsed or urges the congregation to vote for her/him.
9. Churches may distribute non-partisan voter guide giving information on where each candidate stands on the issues. Churches should be warned about using guides that come from outside sources as they may be deemed to be partisan.
10. Churches may use their premises as voting stations.
Whether or not it is a good idea for a pastor to personally endorse a political candidate or not, and exactly how far a church should go in getting involved in the political process is another post for another time; but for those pastors and churches that are so inclined, it is helpful to know what the rules are as Caesar continues to domesticate the church into doing his bidding; whether it is in threatening the church's tax-exempt status, or in so sucking us into the partisan political process in both parties, that we forget the church's more profound political task of reminding the nations of the world that it is God who reigns and they are on borrowed time.
Allan R. Bevere is the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Cambridge, Ohio, and a Professional Fellow in Theology at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio.