WASHINGTON (RNS) America’s charities, including houses of worship, receive special tax treatment, given their unique and historical role in our society to serve the public interest.
In return for that most-favored tax status, all 501(c)(3) organizations must follow certain rules. Among them, nonprofits are prohibited from engaging in partisan campaigns. President Trump’s pledge to “get rid of and totally destroy” this rule attacks the integrity of both our charitable groups and campaign finance system, with potential for great harm for houses of worship.
Changing the law is not about protecting free speech.
ANOTHER POINT OF VIEW: Free pastors from the Johnson Amendment
Preachers can and do speak out, including from the pulpit, on any issue, and houses of worship may advocate for moral and ethical positions. Pastors and other church leaders, as individuals, can participate in the electoral process as much as they wish, as long as tax-exempt church resources are not used and it is clear the pastor is acting in his individual capacity. And, if a church really wants to wade into the political morass by intervening in an election, it can give up its charitable tax designation.
But beware, for as soon as the church joins at the hip with a particular candidate or party, its prophetic witness — its ability to speak truth to power and not risk being co-opted by the government — is hindered. The credibility and integrity of congregations would suffer with bad decisions of candidates they endorsed.
There has been no outcry from the grass roots for a change in the law. To the contrary, overwhelming majorities of Americans are opposed to pastors endorsing or opposing candidates from pulpits. In a survey released by the evangelical LifeWay Research last year, 8 in 10 people said it is inappropriate for pastors to endorse a candidate in church. Clergy members as a group are even more against the idea, with nearly 9 in 10 opposed when LifeWay Research asked previously.
Why is this idea so unpopular? Inviting churches to intervene in campaigns with tax-deductible offerings would fundamentally change our houses of worship. There is no incentive for a pastor to alienate any of her parishioners with candidate endorsements. For people in the pews, their reasons for going to church most likely do not include the need to hear another political campaign ad.
Churches are not immune to the well-documented trend of self-sorting over political views, but turning churches into arms of a political party — having a “First Democratic Baptist Church” and a “First Republican Baptist Church” — would have a detrimental impact on our houses of worship and civil discourse.
It is not yet clear how President Trump plans to eviscerate this protection in the law. Presumably, he will need to rely on Congress. One bill recently introduced would not “totally destroy” the statute but change it in troubling ways, permitting charitable organizations to campaign in the ordinary course of activities and in furtherance of their purpose if incurring minimal costs. For those concerned with government regulation, these standards should raise red flags — they invite IRS scrutiny to determine whether the speech is in line with a group’s purpose and to examine financial accounts to calculate a percentage of funds spent on politics.
The church has proved itself to be an agent of change without acting like a PAC. During debate in the House of Representatives on this issue nearly 15 years ago, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia — who stood alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement — gave a powerful testimony. “The church was the heart and soul of our efforts because ministers had the moral authority and respect to stand against immoral and indefensible laws,” he said. “At no time did we envision or even contemplate the need for our houses of worship to become partisan pulpits.”
Politicizing churches is not a solution to a problem — it is a problem in search of a problem. Churches are not political committees, nor should they be.