Finding the Right Balance
Churches can and should address political, moral, and social issues—as long as they don’t break the “no-politicking” rule.
By Rev. Barry W. Lynn
I had been working for Americans United for Separation of Church and State for just a few days and was still packing up things from a job in Hanover, N.H., when my wife handed me an ad from USA Today that nearly made me spill my coffee.
It was October of 1992, and the presidential election was less than a month away. The ad in question was headlined “Christian Beware: Do Not Put the Economy Ahead of the Ten Commandments.” It went on to attack then Arkansas governor Bill Clinton for his stands on social issues and concluded with this question: “How then can we vote for Bill Clinton?” Specifically, it included positions that Clinton took on various social issues and then challenged them with scriptural references that allegedly denoted that Clinton stood for the “sinful” position. It ended authoritatively with yet another biblical “proof text” that voting for a “sinner” made you one as well.
At the bottom of the ad, in tiny type, was a line stating that it had been paid for by the Church at Pierce Creek in Vestal, N.Y. It solicited tax-deductible contributions to pay for similar ads in other newspapers.
I was floored. USA Today is the nation’s largest-circulation daily. A full-page ad there probably cost a little less than the $100,000 one will set you back today—but I doubt much less. Clearly this little church had wanted to make a big splash. I decided right then and there Americans United would help it along.
Federal tax law bars all non-profit groups that hold the 501(c)(3) designation from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. That is the tax category of more or less every house of worship in America. This ad clearly expressed opposition to Clinton. It flatly instructed people not to vote for him. A church placed it just before the election, with the obvious aim of affecting the outcome of the race. This church then had the temerity to solicit tax-deductible donations to place more ads like it!
Americans United wrote to the Internal Revenue Service, enclosed a copy of the ad and requested an investigation. It took more than two years for our efforts to bear fruit, but in 1995 we learned that the Church at Pierce Creek had lost its tax-exempt status. This was the first time in history that a house of worship was stripped of its tax exemption solely for its partisan politicking.
The church’s pastor, Daniel Little, was defiant throughout the process. Speaking on a now-defunct cable network in April of 1995, Little insisted he had not bothered to consult with an attorney before placing the ad, remarking, “Why should we consult attorneys? We have the word of God. Principle sometimes takes precedent over silly laws.”
For the pastor of a small church, Little seemed awfully full of bluster. Something was going on here. A little investigating soon revealed that the church was the home congregation of strident antiabortion protestor and founder of Operation Rescue Randall Terry—and what’s more, this little church in an out-of-the-way area had lined up big legal guns to help press its case against the IRS: TV preacher Pat Robertson’s legal eagles were coming to town. The Robertson group, the American Center for Law and Justice, promptly sued the IRS, alleging the church’s free speech and free exercise of religion rights had been violated.
What exactly was going on at the Church at Pierce Creek? Looking back on the case 10 years later, I think it was all carefully choreographed. Religious Right activists wanted to test the law banning partisan endorsements. My hunch is that some Religious Right fat cat gave this church the money for the ad, knowing it would spark action by the IRS. Presto—instant test case!
It almost worked, but there was one little problem: Instead of winning a ruling declaring the IRS regulations unconstitutional, the Religious Right and Robertson’s attorneys were handed a stinging defeat. The trial court and then a federal appeals court ruled unanimously in Church at Pierce Creek v. Richardson that the federal tax agency has a legal right to place conditions on the receipt of tax-exempt status and upheld the “no politicking” rule.
The Religious Right is well skilled at making the best of a bad situation, and it did so here. National right-wing organizations used the federal court ruling to cry that houses of worship are being “muzzled.” Free speech, they claimed, had been trampled on. Predictably, they persuaded a member of Congress, in this case Rep. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, to introduce legislation repealing the IRS language. Jones’s bill has not passed—and in fact it failed handily the one time it received a vote in the House—but the Religious Right has continued to use the church politicking issue to raise funds and spur activism.
As a minister myself, I find this activity misguided and even dangerous. My job in the pulpit is to try to bring my congregants closer to an encounter with God. Certainly a pastor may discuss issues dealing with social justice and contemporary controversies. Many pastors, for example, believed that God was greatly offended by the treatment of African Americans prior to the Civil Rights era. A religious leader has no obligation to be silent in the face of such injustice—but candidate endorsements are not part of the job description. I like the aroma of incense in a sanctuary, but I can do without smelling cigar smoke wafting up from the basement where political deals are being hatched by the board of deacons. They don’t teach you how to hand down a list of endorsements in the seminary and for good reason. Instructing people on how to vote simply is not part of the job. It is an arrogant abuse of power that very often divides congregations and isolates certain members in the pews. That is the opposite of what a pastor seeks to achieve.
But again, none of this means a house of worship cannot address a political, moral or social issue. This point is worth looking at in some depth, because the Religious Right has deliberately tried to mislead the American public about federal tax law and what it says. They do this in an effort to rally people in support of changing the law to allow church-based politicking.
As usual, the Religious Right is dead wrong when its leaders claim that pastors’ mouths are being sealed with metaphorical duct tape. Religious leaders, houses of worship and denominations speak out on political issues all of the time. If you doubt this, simply open up a newspaper. You will see examples of ministers, priests, rabbis and other men and women of the cloth speaking out on any number of issues.
In their effort to mislead the people, James Dobson and other Religious Right leaders usually fail to note that the IRS ban on partisan activity applies to all 501(c)(3) organizations, not just houses of worship. It’s not a special prohibition on religion. Scientific, literary, educational, public policy and other types of organizations must abide by these rules. Most have no problem doing so. Why can’t the houses of worship?
Furthermore, the IRS is not hyper-diligent in applying this rule to religious organizations, and there has been nothing like a crackdown on houses of worship. If anything, the IRS looked the other way for a long time while churches violated the rule. Consider that the Church at Pierce Creek was the first church ever to lose its tax-exempt status since the IRS adopted the “no politicking” rule in the 1950s. Houses of worship are not being subject to special scrutiny in any way.
And make no mistake, many houses of worship have gone way over the line in this area. They aren’t functioning in a “gray zone,” they are flat-out endorsing or opposing candidates. This problem afflicts both conservative and liberal churches. I’ve seen virtual campaign rallies taking place in some churches. I’ve seen candidates shill shamelessly for votes while standing in pulpits. I’ve seen pastors pass out or place in the pews alleged “voter guides” that were so slanted in favor of one candidate that they obviously qualified as campaign material. All of this is unlawful and should have been stopped long ago.
It’s not enough to shift the blame to candidates. A candidate’s job is to get elected. He or she may choose to run close to the edge of the law to reach that goal. A house of worship, especially a huge mega-church with thousands of members, represents an irresistible target to some who aspire to public office. One pulpit appearance or endorsement from a pastor can reach thousands in a few minutes. Yet pastors must be careful. They have an important obligation to learn the law and stick to it. Not all candidate appearances in church violate the Internal Revenue Code, but an event that has all the trappings of a campaign rally the Sunday before the election clearly does. It invites IRS scrutiny. On the other hand, inviting all candidates for an office to the church social hall for a discussion of positions (even if all don’t come) is perfectly permissible public education. So is voter registration, when it is done without regard to party affiliation.
The IRS does not interpret its statutes simply to bar pastors from issuing pulpit endorsements or church coffers to advance candidates. The standard states that intervention in a partisan campaign in unlawful. Every election year, the IRS produces special publications designed to help religious leaders understand the law and what constitutes unlawful intervention. The IRS always places special emphasis on voter guides or material produced by outside organizations.
For a number of years, the Christian Coalition roamed the country, seeking to place what it claimed were “fair and balanced” (even before there was a Fox New Channel) voter guides in the foyers or even pews of churches. The problem is, the guides were anything but even-handed. They were precisely the opposite. Christian Coalition voter guides were about as subtle as a sharp stick in your eye. Anyone could tell, even by glancing at the guides, which candidate the Coalition favored. (It was almost always the Republican—surprise! I recall that a Democratic U.S. House member from Mississippi got Coalition approval once. He immediately switched parties and became a Republican.) The Coalition employed a number of sleazy tricks and dishonest tactics to produce the guides. The Coalition based its guides, which might cover five or six issues, on answers it got from candidates after querying them on sometimes as many as one hundred issues. With a huge range to choose from, the Coalition found it easy to make candidates appear to be sharply different, when in fact they sometimes were not. In some cases, the guides were flatly erroneous, but when the errors were pointed out, it was too late—the guides had already been distributed.
Ironically, there is so much houses of worship can do legally in the political arena that skirting the law should never even be an issue. I’ve already noted that churches can host educational forums where all candidates are invited to share their views and answer questions. During the primary season, when many candidates may be running, these events can be very valuable and serve as a community-wide resource.
A church can register voters—in all parties. A pastor can stress the importance of voting and offer sermons on the civic good of being politically engaged. Houses of worship can offer transportation to the polls and engage in other activities to spur turnout. In some parts of the country, churches are even used as polling places. I would always prefer that government facilities be used first, but if churches are pressed into this duty, they must abide by state and local laws governing sign placement and leafleting on behalf of candidates, and pastors must not interfere with anyone’s right to vote.
A pastor, as a private citizen, can work on a political campaign. A pastor can even endorse a candidate—again, as a private citizen. The endorsement should be offered at a neutral location, not from the pulpit. If the endorsement is in the form of a letter, it should be on the pastor’s personal stationery, not church letterhead. A pastor can donate his own money to a candidate. He may never donate church funds.
Many parishioners are offended by pulpit endorsements. If my pastor ever offered one, even if I liked the candidate he backed, I would get up and walk out. I don’t attend church services to be told whom to vote for. My fellow congregants are adults. They read the papers and follow the news. They have their own hierarchy of issues. Some are concerned about poverty, homelessness and education. Others see fair taxation and economic matters as their major concerns. It is not for me or any other religious leader to tell them that they are wrong or to insist that my hierarchy of issues is more important and thus must be substituted for theirs.
Pulpit-based politicking for specific candidates is also arrogant. Do some pastors really believe their congregants are so dense they can’t make political decisions for themselves? Religious Right advocates, in a pathetic attempt to draft Dr. Martin Luther King into their cause, sometimes assert that, thanks to the IRS, King would not have been able to tell churchgoers in Alabama not to vote for Theophilus “Bull” Connor during the civil rights struggle.
Connor served as public safety commissioner of Birmingham, an elected slot, during much of the civil rights era. In that position, he was notorious for ordering police to unleash attack dogs and use water cannons on non-violent protestors. His name today is synonymous with hardcore racial segregation and the reckless use of force. Connor’s tactics made national headlines, and clips of the attacks he orchestrated were carried on the evening news. Everyone in Birmingham certainly knew about them. Does anyone seriously think African Americans might have been tempted to vote for Connor unless King told them not to? It’s insulting for religious leaders to assume that their congregants are too stupid to know what to do unless taken by the hand and led into the voting booth.
It’s especially ironic to see the Religious Right try to claim King as an ally in its misguided crusade. In fact, John Lewis, a King associate and now a member of Congress, has stated on numerous occasions that King never endorsed a candidate for public office. He did not have to. King stood up to Connor’s brutality and, through non-violent means, exposed its ugly face to the world. That tactic was far more effective than a pulpit-based partisan campaign against Connor, which merely would have expended energy saying things anyone who was paying even the slightest bit of attention already knew, or, sadly, had experienced first hand.
King realized that deciding whom to vote for was not the problem facing blacks in the Jim Crow South. The problem was winning the right to vote at all. Once this obstacle was overcome, church members were quite capable of making a rational decision without being handed a list of endorsements from their pastors.
People sometimes call or write Americans United with information about a religious leader speaking out on a political issue. They seem to believe that’s a violation of the separation of church and state. We always set them straight. It’s not a violation. There are lawful ways for religion and politics to interact.
There are also unlawful or just plain unwise ways. The IRS and the courts will have their say with the former. America’s congregants seem pretty skilled at dealing with the latter.
Comment on this article here.
The Reverend Barry W. Lynn is an ordained United Church of Christ minister and an attorney. In 1992, he became executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Lynn’s nationally syndicated radio talk show, Culture Shocks with Barry Lynn, can be heard at cultureshocks.com.
From the book Piety & Politics, by Rev. Barry W. Lynn. Copyright 2006 by Barry W. Lynn. Reprinted by arrangement with Harmony Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group.
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