Pastor Politics

Churches endorsing candidates? It could happen, if a 50-year-old tax regulation is overturned.

BY: Michael Kress


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In another case, the pastor and former congressman Floyd Flake told the Wall Street Journal he was visited by IRS agents after endorsing Al Gore in 2000 from his pulpit at the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City. Flake signed a statement saying he understands the rules and will not violate them again.

Still, the issue has become a hot one among conservative Christians, taking on overtones far beyond the intricacies of IRS code. Many evangelicals speak of an environment of fear the restrictions have instilled in pastors.

William Murray, president of the evangelical Religious Freedom Action Coalition, called the IRS rules "one of the first steps in America toward broad censorship, toward the elimination of freedom of speech."

"It belies the entire notion that the church was part of the Civil Rights movement, the abolition movement, the universal suffrage movement, the Underground Railroad, the Revolutionary War itself," he said. "The church has had a tremendously positive impact on politics and society through politics for [the] more than 200 year existence of this country."

Jerry Falwell called recently for "an uprising of courageous pastors in America" over this issue, and Rep. Jones has reportedly called opponents of his bill "evil." The Becket Fund mailed letters to nearly 300,000 houses of worship blasting the restrictions on pastoral politicking and offering free legal counsel to anyone accused of stepping over the line.

Many supporters argue that changing the rules is nothing but a clarification--opening the door for pastors to do what they are already allowed to but are now afraid to out of fear of the IRS.

"If the churches in this country would just stand up and do what is allowed to do and speak up, they'd be a great catalyst for change," said Hiram Sasser, Director of Litigation for Liberty Legal Institute, which advocates for religious freedom. "That's the reason for changing the rules."

But, though evangelicals are fueling the drive for changing the rules, a lot of conservative churches don't really want this, said Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University. "The pressure to endorse [candidates] is going to be really powerful," he said. "That might split your congregation. It might interfere with your ability to 'win souls for the Lord.'"

Many opponents of the rules change see churches and synagogues of all theological stripes as already deeply involved in political issues. Their fear, they say, comes in considering the potential consequences of the Jones bill.

In the scenarios they envision, churches will become de facto--or even actual--political action committees, and the entanglement between church and state will become absolute.

"Those [candidates] that oppose abortion will have their campaign offices in the church and those who support abortion will have their campaign offices in the church, and it would just spiral out of control," said the Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the mainline protestant National Council of Churches.

Candidates and campaigns might reap a much larger windfall than pastors or houses of worship, said Wilcox. Partisan organizations could organize as houses of worship, thereby gaining tax-exempt status without any restrictions on their political activities. "This would be the new campaign-finance loophole," like the so-called 527s that are active in the current election, he noted.

Even if not going that far, political operatives would have "incentives to use churches as a means to funnel campaign funds into politics, bypassing the campaign-finance laws," said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

"In this context, the lives of pastors might change a lot, as would the lives of congregations," he said. "And politics might well become more polarized as religious communities become more polarized."

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