Pastors, Candidates and the IRS

My Facebook friend Shane of Caffeinated Theology recently referred to a commentary, by noted theologian Wayne Grudem, titled Pastors, Not the Gov't, Should Decide When They Can Speak About Candidates From the Pulpit. Here are a few clips from it:
Before 1954, pastors of churches were free to speak out about candidates and political issues whenever they thought it wise to do so, and many did. But in 1954, Congress amended the Internal Revenue Code to restrict the speech of non-profit organizations. This amendment – spearheaded by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas – required churches to refrain from promoting or opposing any political candidate by name.
Since that time, the IRS has insisted that any speech by churches that deals with candidates for political office, including a pastor’s sermon, could result in a church losing its non-profit, tax-exempt status. This law has suppressed the valuable moral guidance that American pulpits could be contributing to our political process.
The Johnson amendment also violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment because it requires the government to discriminate against speech because of its content. In other words, some speech is allowed, but other speech is not. The U.S. Supreme Court has invalidated this type of speech discrimination for decades. The amendment also violates the Free Speech clause because it conditions the receipt of a tax exemption on refraining from certain types of speech.
The government should not be dictating to pastors and churches what they can and cannot preach about. Because of the Johnson amendment and an entire atmosphere of fear and excessive caution that have surrounded it, the crucial voice of the church in society has been muzzled for too long. It is time for the courts to overturn this law in accordance with the ringing declaration of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.”
Now I do understand that many religious leaders do want to name names in the fashion of John the Baptist when he called out Herod for divorcing his wife and marrying his brother's wife. In a sense it is a prophetic thing to do - in the Old Testament the prophet Nathan did something similar to King David over his affair with Bathsheba.

Yet I do wonder what would happen if pastors, rabbis, imams and other ministers open the proverbial door to this sort of politicking? For sure some preaching would be not engage in the discourse as they do now. And some might simply give a sermon on the issues or on the candidates in the weeks before the election. Yet I do wonder how many churches, temples and mosques would become a hotbed of political activity. Maybe some would dedicate resources and energies to political ideologies? Perhaps some would have candidates speak from the pulpit or solicit campaign contributions.

And when you think about it - a religious leader/organization who feels compelled by God to engage in politics should not be concerned at all about losing the tax exempt status. They should not be concerned about such this and simply rely on God's provision. That would at least seem consistent with a John the Baptist type of approach.

But in my opinion, for what it is worth, religious institutions should be about ministry not politics. I love how Jesus would not be roped into speaking out against the Roman government and stayed true to ministry. It challenges me to remember that, while I love political discourse and debate, life is about something more than politics and swaying civil governments - and it probably should be.

What say you? Should tax-exempt religious groups be permitted to endorse candidates?


  1. I was travelling two summers ago and attended a church where I was staying. The pastor gave a 30-minute sermon telling us why you could not vote for Barack Obama and consider yourself either an American or a Christian.

    I guess I don't have a problem with religious groups endorsing candidates. I just have a problem with pastors making crap up and trying to sell it as God's word.

  2. I hear you Ed. Sad for some for the stuff that passes off as "teaching".


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