Jesus ate with reviled tax collectors, a scandal to religious authorities at the time, but as far as I can tell he never challenged tax laws by endorsing a candidate for office. Now comes the Alliance Defense Fund, an evangelical ACLU, to encourage gospel preachers to turn their sermons into partisan stump speeches three Sundays from now, and the tax laws be damned.
The ADF is recruiting preachers to challenge IRS rules that prohibit tax-exempt churches from engaging in partisan politics, step up to the pulpit Sept. 28 and endorse a candidate.
ADF officials say this will be a courageous act of civil disobedience to defend free speech. It’s really just a stunt by a conservative Christian organization to get evangelical Revs. to rev up the base for the Republican Party ticket. ADF was founded years ago by leaders of more than 30 Christian groups, including Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, a born-again convert to the McCain-Palin Republican Party ticket.
Not that conservative evangelicals are the only churchgoers who appreciate a good stump speech under the cross on Sunday morning. Democratic candidates have been known to increase their church attendance in campaign seasons, especially in African-American churches. In too many churches, the long liturgical season between Easter and Advent isn’t “Ordinary Time,” it’s “Campaign Time.”
It’s clearly Campaign Time for the ADF. “The (Sept. 28) sermon will be an evaluation of conditions for office in light of scripture and doctrine. They will make a specific recommendation from the pulpit about how the congregation would vote,” ADF attorney Erik Stanley told the Post. “They could oppose a candidate. They could oppose both candidates. They could endorse a candidate. They could focus on a federal, state or local election.”
Stanley said the goal is to trigger an IRS investigation of a church that can be challenged in federal court, perhaps in the U.S. Supreme Court. But the IRS investigates dozens of complaints about church/preacher electioneering each year. Earlier this year, the IRS opened and closed an investigation of the United Church of Christ for inviting member Barack Obama to speak at its 2007 General Synod. The federal agency rarely enforces the 1954 rule that forbids churches to support or oppose candidates for elected office. The IRS hasn’t revoked a church’s tax-exempt status since 1992, when a New York church placed an ad asking “How then can we vote for Bill Clinton?”
It’s hard to believe anyone who follows Stanley’s advise will more brazenly challenge the IRS than Gus Booth, pastor of Warroad (Minn.) Community Church. In a May 18 sermon, Booth told his congregation that “if you are a Christian, you cannot support Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.” Then he wrote the IRS explaining what he’d done. Americans United for Separation of Church and State has asked the IRS to investigate.
It’s all done for political, not spiritual effect. The ADF, Booth and other pastors know they are free to endorse candidates — as pastors John Hagee, Rod Parsley and others so ably demonstrated this year. The IRS just doesn’t want them to do it from the pulpit, on church letterhead or in their official capacity as leader of a tax-exempt congregation.
Churches and other charitable/educational non-profits are tax exempt because they have agreed NOT to participate in the partisan election process. It’s a deal they make, in part to save billions of dollars a year, in part to protect them from political influence, and in part because they are called — at least in theory — to a higher allegiance that transcends political candidates or parties or even national boundaries.
By the way, congregations and other nonprofit organizations have every right to engage in partisan political activity. All they have to do is form a separate political action committee, which has a different tax status and must follow campaign finance laws.
Meanwhile, ordained clergy and their tax-exempt congregations also are free to engage in the nonpartisan political process by speaking up for or working for justice, peace and compassion — or against violence, racism, sexism — and other issues found in scripture and doctrine. They can do that from their Sunday pulpits in their official roles as ministers of the gospel.
And if they want to let candidates know how they feel, invite them over to eat.