Last week preachers from across the nation used their Sunday sermons to publically endorse a single candidate for President of the United States. Aside from what one might think of the wisdom of such an endorsement, it put their congregations at odds with federal tax laws regarding the churches tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). This action and the resulting discussion has brought to the foreground a thorny issue which for years has not been discussed: Should government have the power to silence the pulpit for any reason?
Let us first observe that the preachers who made endorsements did so in violation of unambiguous laws which require tax exempt organizations to avoid endorsing individual candidates for political office. As such, unless they terminate their tax exempt status, they are in violation of the law of the land and risk losing their status. If a church loses its tax exempt status, it must pay taxes on its weekly contribution and likely would also have to pay state taxes on property. This is a weighty financial question as well and should not be lightly considered. We will soon examine this case of civil disobedience from a Biblical perspective.
Historically, the laws restricting the extent of pulpit involvement in political campaign began in 1954 during a congressional debate of the tax code. The provision restricting tax exempt organizations from direct or indirect campaign involvement was inserted without hearings or debate by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson. There is no record to indicate why the restriction was placed. The rule applies to all organizations that are tax exempt under section 501(c) (3) of the IRS tax code, not just to churches. Although the United States Supreme Court has never heard arguments regarding churches and political campaigns, lower courts have and have upheld the IRS requirements. Generally, it is thought the rules do not violate First Amendment guarantees regarding free speech or violate the constitutional establishment/separation clause either. Churches do have the absolute choice to avoid the conflict altogether if they are willing to forego their tax exempt status.
My judgment is that nothing should restrict the preaching of truth and such restrictions ought be immediately removed. However, such is a political question and beyond my ability to change. Certainly John the Baptist was unafraid to challenge the powers that be when he pointed to the moral failings of King Herod (Luke 3:19). Preachers must never be afraid of, or restricted in, their responsibility to preach against sin.
But even if there were no such restriction, preachers would still have to ask if there is wisdom in using the pulpit to endorse a given political candidate. And it is on this point that I disagree with many. I made a choice many years ago to never endorse a political candidate neither as a preacher nor a private citizen. As a minister of the Gospel I am blessed to be able to speak for God. As such, I only have my credibility and the credibility of the Bible as tools of my trade. Should I become tarnished by some endorsement, I have damaged the message of Christ. I know of no individual worth such a gamble.
Consider the possibility that after endorsing some candidate, that same candidate becomes involved in a terrible scandal. Would that not reflect upon the preacher and upon the church? It is the wiser decision to stick to the issues themselves and avoid personal endorsements.
Later this week, we will explore the idea of civil disobedience and the circumstances under which breaking the law would be acceptable for the Christian. I hope you will read carefully that article too.