Monday, January 7, 2008

Political involvement for churches and pastors:
The facts and details behind thorny legal issues

I do not often address politics directly when speaking publicly at Cascade Hills. Several times, we have explored ethical issues that have bordered on the political, but as far as speaking about particular candidates, I'm not sure the subject has ever come up on a Sunday morning.

But what if I wanted to make this a subject of theological reflection on a Sunday morning? Suppose I wanted to express my views about why Ron Paul is the best thing since sliced bread? What if I wanted to post a huge picture of Barack Obama as a background to my sermon, quote him prodigiously and lovingly and then say that I will vote for him? What if I decide that the United States would be a better place if Huckabee took up residence in the Oval Office and preached on "Why Jesus would vote Huckabee"? Besides irritating most of my congregation and making myself look ridiculous, what would the legal ramifications be?

The folks over at Out of Ur have been so kind as to break down some of the confusion over this issue: what exactly can a pastor say? What constitutes official endorsement, and therefore endangers a church's 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, 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.

And for the record, I won't be taking any positions any time soon, and rest assured, Cascade Hills is not going to become a political machine by any stretch of the imagination. I merely found it enlightening to see the facts in a day when facts are in short supply, clouded as they are by an ignorant public full of groundless opinion and recycled soundbites.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, I knew that Cascade Hills would turn into a voting machine as soon as my John Yoder oponions left:-)