Churches endorse candidates at their risk (but not from the IRS)
Today and yesterday Chuck used The Fairness Doctrine to promote an event this weekend in which pastors will compare the voting records of vicarious politicians who are up for re-election with “biblical principles” – i.e., interpretations of the Christian Bible according to a self-appointed organization opposed to the restriction on non-profit organizations engaging in campaign politics. Some pastors have threatened to endorse candidates – an illegal act under the IRS code – and dare the IRS to revoke their tax-exempt status.
Chuck opined that this is a huge deal – a movement to overturn the 1954 law banning tax-exempt organizations like churches from engaging in politics, but he also claimed that very few, if any churches endorse candidates or engage in politics illegally.
In fact, the event this Sunday and the propaganda leading up to it is simply another manufactured crisis by conservatives – in this case power-hungry religious and political conservatives – to stampede gullible Americans to believe that their government is attacking their religion and must be stopped. Exactly the opposite is the case.
1. It is not a movement. There are 300,000 churches in the US; as of today only 33 have officially signed up for the event, and they are overwhelmingly Baptist, Pentecostal or non-denominational fundamentalist or evangelical and reside in fewer than half the states – hardly representative of American religious community. In fact, 99% of all churches are ignoring the event. Even if the 500 individuals (not churches) Chuck claims were at last year’s event show up this year and each does represent a separate church, that will be 0.16 % of all American churches - this does not a movement make (Malcolm Gladwell points out in The Tipping Point that it takes at least 2% of a population to have a measureable impact, much less a “movement”). This is not a movement; it is a microscopicallysmall handful of self-appointed religious power-grabbers trying to avoid the consequences of their illegal partisanship and fool guilible Americans into believing that the separation of church and state is not working.
2. The law does not trample the free speech rights of churches, nor does it prevent them from speaking out on moral issues. Like all organizations that are exempt from federal income tax under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions under section 170(c)(2) of the Internal Revenue Code, churches are prohibited from supporting or opposing any candidate for elected public office. This prohibition applies to candidates for federal, state, and local offices.
But, the lawallows every other kind of political speech, specifically:
- Pastors can endorse candidates privately
- Pastors can speak out on public policy issues at church
- Churches can sponsor candidates appearances and debates, as long as all candidates are equally present
- Churches can publish pamphlets, newsletters, editorials or other media with positions on public policy issues
- Churchs can endorse or oppose ballot measures, laws or bills (but not spend funds for lobbying)
- Churches/pastors can testify before government bodies
- Churches can devote 5% of their assets to lobbying legislators
3. The IRS does not attack churches. The IRS did not make the law; Congress did, and the IRS enforces it as part of its legal mandate. However, the IRS enforces the law in a way that is highly gentle to churches. The last year a church was denied tax –exempt status was 1992( see below). The IRS holds a national conference call with churches every year (I have been on it) explaining what is an is not illegal. It also sends handbooks, bulletins and case studies with detailed examples of legal political activity to pastors around the country and offers free telephone advice to pastors and leaders of religious organizations. The overwhelming majority of American churches understand the limits and gladly stay within them; it is the politicized, mostly fundamentalist and evangelical pastors who want power and publicity and like being stroked by Republican big-wigs who deliberately flout the law and invite investigation.
3. Illegal political activities by this small number of unrepresentative churches is rampant. According to ABC news, in 2006, the IRS received 237 complaints and selected 100 groups — 44 churches and 56 nonchurches — for examination. More than half of those cases remain under investigation, according to IRS statistics. Examples of churches and religious organizations engaging in illegal politicking:
- Branch Ministries (The Church at Pierce Creek). Four days before the 1992 presidential election, this church placed full-page advertisements in two newspapers in which it urged Christians not to vote for then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton because of his positions on certain moral issues. The IRS began an inquiry of the church within a matter of weeks. Eight years later, after extensive litigation, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the IRS’s revocation of the church’s tax-exempt status.
- Christian Broadcasting Network. In the mid-1980s, this ministry supported the presidential campaign of its founder, Rev. Pat Robertson, according to the IRS. Ten years later CBN settled with the IRS by agreeing to the revocation of its tax-exempt status for 1986 and 1987, the revocation of the tax-exempt statuses of three former affiliates, making a “significant payment” to the IRS, avoiding partisan campaign activities in the future, placing more outside directors on its board, and implementing other organizational and operational changes to ensure tax law compliance.
- Old Time Gospel Hour. In 1986 and 1987, this ministry affiliated with Rev. Jerry Falwell raised money for a PAC, according to the IRS. After a four-year audit by the IRS, the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of the ministry retroactively for 1986 and 1987 and the ministry agreed to pay the IRS $50,000 in taxes for those years and to change its organizational structure so that no future political campaign intervention activities would occur.
- Pastor Tom Brown of Tom Brown Ministries sent an email to the community, distributed by the ministry and featured on its website, which endorsed the recall of Mayor John Cook and El Paso City Council Members Steve Ortega and Susie Byrd. Brown has also written about the recall on the ministry’s website and announced it during services at his Word of Life Church.
- Cary K. Gordon, pastor of Cornerstone World Outreach in Sioux City, launched a church-based campaign to recall three Iowa Supreme Court justices last year. Gordon was angry that the three, who faced retention elections, had voted to legalize same-sex marriage. Gordon sent letters to churches across the state, asking them to help him defeat the judges and to urge their flock to vote against the judges.
- Pastor Arlen Beck of Sun City Christian Center told congregants on Oct. 24, 2009, that he had prepared a list of candidates that he intends to vote for and placed copies of the list in the back of the church for their use as a voting guide.
- Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson, N.J. was investigated by the IRS and warned of possible revocation of its tax-exempt status, for Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli’s public speeches comparing Democratic candidate Barack Obama to Herod Antipas, the New Testament ruler who is notorious for ordering the beheading of John the Baptist.
- Bellevue Baptist in Cordova, Tenn. posted links to another website that lists three candidates deemed worthy of support. The IRS was not fooled.
- Bill Keller Ministries attacked Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney on one of its ministry Web sites, Liveprayer.com, which ran articles warning readers that a vote for Romney is a vote for Satan.
- Yukon, Oklahoma pastor Dan Fisher of the 1,500-member Trinity Baptist Church told his congregants he liked Republican candidates Mary Fallin for governor and Scott Pruitt for attorney general, among other endorsements he made.
- Gus Booth, pastor of the 195-member Warroad Community Church in Warroad, MN, endorsed Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer and several other candidates.
- Pastor David Shelley of Smith Springs Baptist Church in Nashville told about people in the pews y about the abortion views of state and federal candidates and said, “We need to end legalized abortion to stop the slaughter.”
- Pastor Mac Hammond of Living Word Christian Church endorsed Rep. Michele Bachmann during church services in 2006,. That endorsement eventually led to an IRS investigation of the church’s finances.
- In June Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition meeting brought together right-wing political strategists and pastors who talked openly about ways to harness the power of churches and church-goers to get the “right” candidates elected.
The Founding Fathers were aware of the damage occurs when churches co-opt the power of the state. They were familiar with the 300 years of religious war in Europe caused by church politics and some colonists even fled church/government persecution in Europe. They also understood that engaging in politics corrupts churches. It turns pastors into power-hungry politicians and can set parishioners against each other. That is why the very first amendment established a separation of Church and state.
Additionally, Americans overwhelmingly do not want their tax dollars being used to support political acativities by a church they are not a part of and may not agree with.
Does this exclude religion from public policy? No.
Can religious people be involved in democracy? Absolutely.
Can religious people offer to be a conscience to the community? Absolutely.
Should religious people vote? Absolutely.
Should religious people apply their beliefs to current issues? Absolutely.
Should they endorse candidatres and campaign for them. Never.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission put it best. “It (endorsing candidates) puts congregations in an awkward position,”. “It’s not a wise thing for churches to endorse candidates. We think candidates should endorse us. We think the mixing of the sacred nature of the church with the exceedingly worldly nature of politics is … unseemly,”
It is also undemocratic, unconstituional and un-American.- it puts them and their nation at risk.