03 October 2008

Politics from the Pulpit?

Part of an article from ABC News (USA)

Churches and other non-profit groups like charities and universities do not have to pay taxes in the USA. That exemption, however, comes with a price. Churches, and by extension the pastors who serve them in an official capacity, are not allowed to endorse or oppose political candidates.

Minnesota pastor Gus Booth, 34, is one of several religious leaders who this year hope to challenge federal law by flouting the regulations about endorsing candidates from the pulpit — a move that could potentially cost them their tax-exempt status, creating financial ruin for many congregations.

The separation of church and state may be one of our democracy's most vaunted values, but its enforcement falls to one of our government's most derided institutions — the IRS.

First Amendment Protection?
Booth and other religious leaders who want to challenge the government believe their rights to freedom of speech and religion, enshrined in the First Amendment, permit them to say whatever they want, wherever they want. Those rights, they say, should trump a 54-year-old tax code.

"The government is trying to censor me and other religious leaders," Booth told ABC News. "I may be taking on the IRS, but the IRS has taken on the Constitution unchallenged since 1954. I feel like the only law that should dictate what I am allowed to say is the First Amendment."

In 2004, the IRS selected 110 cases for examination and revoked the tax-exempt status of five organizations. Of those five organizations, none were churches.

The last church to have its tax-exempt status revoked was the Church at Pierce Creek near Binghamton, N.Y., in 1992.

The Church took out an ad in 1992 that read: "The Bible warns us to not follow another man in his sin, nor help him promote sin — lest God chasten us … How then can we vote for Bill Clinton?"

That ad, like a speech from the pulpit, is a violation of section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, according to the IRS.

"Generally, the law passed in 1954 prohibits any tax-exempt organization from participating on behalf or in opposition to any candidate," said IRS spokesperson Nancy Mathis.

In another article from The Washington Post:

In an open letter Saturday, a United Church of Christ minister, the Rev. Eric Williams, warned that many members of the clergy are "exchanging their historic religious authority for a fleeting promise of political power," to the detriment of their churches.

"The role of the church -- of congregation, synagogue, temple and mosque -- and of its religious leaders is to stand apart from government, to prophetically speak truth to power," Williams wrote, "and to encourage a national dialogue that transcends the divisiveness of electoral politics and preserves for every citizen our 'first liberty.' "

I'm part of an ongoing discussion with a group in the US. They asked me to weigh in on the topic for the week. Some of the questions and my responses follow.

"When asked why he felt the need to discuss candidates by name, one pastor said that he must connect the dots because he is not sure that all of his congregants can do it on their own."
Jill: What arrogance!
The IRS has other measures short of revoking a church's tax-exemption, such as merely sending a letter of warning, and that action would not give the ADF its hoped-for court battle. "Education has been and remains the first goal of the IRS' program on political activity by tax-exempt organizations," said Lois G. Lerner, an IRS official.

Erik Stanley, legal counsel for the ADF, says that if the action last Sunday does not result in the IRS coming after the churches, "then we will do it even bigger at the next election. We'll keep doing it until the IRS responds."
Jill: I was at a dinner once where a missionary seeking support from a church made a political joke against a sitting president. When the wealthy woman to his right did not laugh, he looked at her. She said, "I voted for him." The silence at the table was palpable.

People feel strongly about their vote and should not be beat up on or made to feel badly or as an outsider if they are at variance with others. Especially so in the church where love & grace should abound! People often get more respect in pubs & bars than they do in congregations! Since when do we want any political agenda to stand between a person who is in need of pastoral care, godly counsel or a better understanding of Jesus?

While elections are vitally serious matters and I vote absentee so as to participate, if voicing my opinion on who to vote for cause a barrier between me and someone I might have discipled to a stronger faith in the Lord, then my opinion would have been better kept to myself.

This is not a matter of Colts -vs- Packers; a preference between Rugby Union or Rugby League. People's spiritual well being is the most important thing. To think someone would be offended and moved to the outside of fellowship because of a political vote! What would Jesus say about that? He lived in a very politicised age too!

1. To what degree do you come to church hoping to be advised about how to live? Why?

Jill: I want application from Scripture. I want challenges to live by a higher standard. I do not want someone treating me like an idiot or telling me which brand to buy.

2. In which of these areas do you think pastors should speak with authority: the Bible, ethics, theology, politics, economics, psychology, morality, relationships, science, the arts, spirituality? Why?

Jill: I have yet to find McCain/Obama or Key/Clark, Democrat/Republican or Labour/National in my concordance! Therefore I'm at a loss to know how anyone can give me book, chapter & verse as to how to vote. As to art, science, relationships and the rest: God is the God of all of that. The church has sidelined itself for too long and made people think they must withdraw from the real world. Matter matters to God. He initiated it.

3. When a member of the clergy believes that the positions of a candidate for public office conflict with biblical principles, does that clergyperson have an obligation to say so in his or her capacity as pastor even if doing so jeopardizes that church's nonprofit status? If yes, justify the risk. If no, in what venues is it appropriate for pastors to state their preferences for specific candidates?

Jill: An obligation? No! Do we expect the Holy Spirit to come in to all of this? Preachers have lost their focus if they think swaying the opinion of their congregation is their business! If a preacher is doing his job, if the people in the church are discipled, if they have reconciled their fragmented worldview with the Scriptures, then he should not need to say much at all come election time.

That's like being the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff and the preacher will have to so act at every major juncture in a person's life. Multiply that times the number of people in the church and . . . . good grief. Preach the Word. Have integrity. Expect the disciples in the church to have some discernment, some wisdom and a worldview shaped by Scripture and the character and nature of God! Cults tell their people how to vote.

4. In what areas would you like to see your pastor concentrate his or her public statements? Why? Does your view imply that religious life and secular life are not interrelated?

Jill: All of life is a package. We must all get involved at the grassroots level to fight corruption, neglect, imbalances and injustice. Talk is cheap.

Using newspaper headlines as a jumping off point for preaching is a great way to integrate all of life. Bring it all in to alignment. Nothing falls outside of the scope of God's concern. So for a preacher to point out God's agenda, God's design, God's holiness and to challenge people to vote accordingly is excellent. To tell me which box to tick is arrogance, manipulation and @#$%^& offensive.

5. Overall, is your congregation's mission helped or hindered by political endorsements from the pulpit?

Jill: Hindered. Relationships can be severely affected, thereby lessening the potential for true community, trust and mutual ministry.

If you disagree or agree or have a different perspective on any of this,
please comment, respectfully, below. Thanks.


Quote Collector said...

"Facts are not judgements and judgements are not facts."--unknown

Opinions are just that...opinions.

We should speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent.
Many churches I've attended, based on what the pastors said, fell short of that goal!

Jill said...

Thanks for that Pop! Good points. I love the quotes you add and am always tempted to put them up as separate blogs posts. I hope people read them in the comments arena.

You add value to the blog!

Tash McGill said...

I agree! I love the quotes!
Thanks for this commentary - recently Brian Krum of Carey Baptist College gave the best message from the pulpit on politics I've ever heard in a NZ context.

he didn't talk about anything other than an imperative to be involved with shaping the collective wisdom or representation of our land, and the need for government that has involved and responsible people in every level of administration.