The 2012 presidential election season has started in earnest. Americans are already stumping for their favorite presidential candidates, and the widespread interest is frankly much better for American than listless hopelessness. People care. As it does on a regular basis, Americans United for Separation of Church and State is getting after churches for caring too much. Americans United has pointed out the pastor of a Texas church to the IRS, which will investigate and potentially revoke the churches' tax exempt status. The issue, however, is not about whether churches have the right to endorse candidates or speak out for or against certain legislation - there's no law that says churches cannot offer a microphone to political causes. Churches and charities just may not keep their 501(c)(3) tax exempt status if they engage in overt campaigning.
Pastor Robert Jeffress of the Dallas-based First Baptist Church was collared by Americans United for openly endorsing Texas Governor Rick Perry for president. Jeffress made it clear that he is representing himself personally and not First Baptist Church, but Americans United argues that the pastor is trying to end-run the law. "In fact, the Internal Revenue Service has never said that disclaimers like this ameliorate candidate endorsements or make this permissable," Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, wrote to the IRS.
What Should Churches Do?
Jesus told his disciples, "Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid."(Matthew 5:14) That applies first and foremost to the Spirit of God in us, shining out in our everyday lives. Living for Jesus Christ and putting him first in our lives is the most vital thing we can do, whatever our political positions.
Because the government of the United States is in the hands of the people, though, Americans are in a greater position to move things politically than were the people of First Century Rome. We Americans have a responsibility to oversee our representatives, to hold them accountable, and to make our voices heard. Individual Americas, whatever their religious beliefs, are not only free but should speak out to make sure that our local and federal public servants are doing their jobs well.
Churches, however, are in a different position according to the law. If a church has not filed for a 501(c)(3) tax exempt status, then the pastors and representatives of that church may politic from the pulpit as much as they like. The church will have to pay taxes, and tithes or donations to the church will not be tax deductible.
Churches that want to keep their 501(c)(3) tax exempt status, however, must refrain from overt political activity. Specifically, pastors or church representatives may not use their official capacity to endorse any one candidate, nor do too much to advocate for the adoption or rejection of specific legislation. Official church newsletters or other publications may not endorse specific candidates or legislation.
According to its website, the IRS received 237 referals and chose to examine 44 churches and 56 nonchurches for violations during the 2006 election season.
However, churches may still speak out on the issues. Churches can teach against abortion or premarital sex or homosexual marriage. Pastors can preach about Biblical economic principles or caring for the poor. They can talk about national and local news and events. They can spell out the voting records of various candidates, as long as they do so in a balanced way in the interest of education. They can give candidates a platform to speak as long as both candidates are invited. Pastors are also free to put up political signs in their yards or favor certain politicians or legislation outside their church role - as common citizens.
If churches have a politically active membership, they also have another option. They can create a separate entity and file it as a 501(c)(4) organization. This new organization would be tax exempt, but donations to it would not be tax deductible. Through a 501 (c)(4) organization, members would have more freedom to lobby for specific legislation. They still would not be able to endorse specific candidates, but they could push for the passage of the bills they favor. In order to support or oppose individual candidates, they would need to establish a political action committee (PAC).
While many churches are afraid of speaking about anything bordering on the political for free of losing their tax exempt status, there is actually quite a lot churches can do to have an impact on their communities and nation.
Ultimately, while different churches take different positions on how active they want to be in regard to the issues of the day, all Christians churches can have one thing in common; preaching the Word of God. Through God's Word men's hearts can be changed (Romans 10:17) and that is the first and most important way to light the world.
Copyright © Koinonia House Inc., Reprinted with permission.
Dr. Chuck Missler is the founder of Koinonia House ministries, or K-House as it is affectionately called. K-House is dedicated to the development and distribution of materials for encouraging and facilitating serious study of the Bible as the inerrant Word of God. K-House reaches tens of thousands through its monthly newsletter, radio shows, cassette tapes, and conferences. More than eight million study tapes have been distributed in the U.S. and in over 35 countries around the world.