The power of the pulpit

The Star Tribune carries the story today about Rev. Gus Booth of Warroad Community Church who is urging his flock not to support Barack Obama for president because of his position on abortion. Booth is a delegate to the RNC convention in St. Paul later this year.

It’s not a freedom of speech issue. It’s a tax issue. There’s nothing to prevent any church leader from speaking politics. You just can’t get into endorsing candidates from the pulpit while claiming non-profit status from the IRS.

I know what some of you are thinking? Isn’t that what Obama’s former pastor did? Why isn’t the IRS investigating that church. It is.

Take the poll and leave a comment.

  • GregS

    The day Barack Obama gets taxed everytime he concludes a speech “Thank you, (insert state or city here). God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.” is the day preachers should taxed for endorsing Barack Obama or his oppenent.

  • Minn Whaler

    There is a huge difference between thanking God, or saying God Bless you, etc, and a preacher from a particular denomination endorsing a candidate.

    the biggest difference is, every religion has a supreme being (deity) and a candidate has a right to express their belief or non-belief in that deity.

    A church of any denomination has different interpretations of their “Holy Book” or “The Word” and follow a particular set of beliefs which vary greatly from church to church, temple to temple, etc. I have no problem with a preacher saying “Our God teaches us war is wrong.” Or “Abortion is a sin” or whatever the issue. I can even go as far as hearing, make sure your voice is heard by voting, but telling me who to vote for crosses a huge line, and they are no longer a representative of their religion, but of a political agenda.

  • bsimon

    The laws that prohibit tax-exempt organizations from playing politics need to be enforced. Whether they are churches or not is irrelevant.

  • MR
  • GregS

    A preacher endorsing a candidate is no different from a candidate invoking the name of God. In both instances, it is an individual exercising their constitutional right of free-speech.

    It is only a violation of tax excempt status when a church, rather than a preacher, spends congregational funds on behalf of a candidate.

  • Alison

    Devil’s Advocate, Greg: If the preacher is paid by the congegation and the preaching is in a building owned and maintained by the congreagtion, is this not spending congregational funds on behalf of the candidate?

  • Bob Collins

    //It is only a violation of tax excempt status when a church, rather than a preacher,

    The preacher is an agent of the organization.

    Keep in mind, of course, there’s nothing to prevent the pastor here from speaking out about an issue and then providing literature, for example, about where candidates stand on the issues without specifically endorsing a candidate.

    And, of course, the church is free to give up its non-profit status and write a check for its fair share and speak about a candidate until the cows come home.

  • Mira

    Interesting topic. Just two comments to add to the mix:

    1. As a teacher, I, too, believe in promoting to my students the civic value and responsibility of voting. I do not tell them who I vote for, though, because I feel it is a kind of abuse of power. My students have little choice but to be in school and have me as their authority figure, and I know many of them would circumvent researching and thinking for themselves simply because they trust and/or value my opinions or want to agree with me for whatever reason. The same is true in churches. The minister is the authority figure who is looked to by his or her congregation to be taught or to be impressed upon.

    On a different note…

    2. When in doubt, I tend to look to Christ’s example. He didn’t come to Earth to endorse a political side but rather to call his people to attend to what eternally matters–caring for the poor, protecting orphans, et cetera. He did, however, tell us to respect whomever was in a position of authority, and I’m sure that leaves some room for interpretation… I have to say, that some of the contemporary Christian movement disturbs me. To me, God is the original independent who probably couldn’t care less which political view we espouse and yet we use politics as a means of separating the so-called wheat from the chaff.

  • bsimon

    GregS writes

    “A preacher endorsing a candidate is no different from a candidate invoking the name of God. In both instances, it is an individual exercising their constitutional right of free-speech.”

    It depends. When the preacher is acting in their official capacity as the voice of the church – which would be the case when speaking from the pulpit during church services – they are not exercising personal free speech. If the preacher is asked as an individual who they prefer as a candidate, that is fair game. If they speak out – say take a full-page ad in a newspaper – as an individual, it is free speech. But if they do the same thing as a representative of their tax-exempt organization, that organization’s tax status should be changed.

    Lastly, your comparison to a politician invoking religion is irrelevant. There are no rules against politicians doing such a thing – and their tax status, so far as I know, is not incumbent on such a restriction.

  • Mary

    I think it’s also a separation of Church and State issue. Like Mira said, she doesn’t promote any particular candidate in her classroom, because she’s teaching students to be responsible citizens and come to their own conclusions. Teachers are responsible for different subjects, they stick to what they know. Church authority figures are there to teach the religion and preach it’s values.

    The actions of this Reverend warning the congregation not to vote for Obama is a bit off, by naming a particular candidate the lines between Church and State are blended. If he had promoted voting for an unnamed candidate that shares the Church’s values then no lines would have been crossed.

  • Mark Gisleson

    I love what GregS is saying. So much so I think I’ll start my own church so I can preach politics and make political endorsements from my pulpit, with all donations being completely tax free.

    Sorry for the sarcasm but my belief is that we’d best be served by stripping ALL churches of their tax-exempt status until such time as they stop playing stupid political games. If they were doing more to help, that would be one thing, but the new trend is more towards buying your pastor his own plane, and building ever bigger churches and temples to a god who just happens to look (and think) exactly like his congregants.

  • How about eliminating tax-exempt status for religious organizations? There are several good arguments for doing so:

    1) A tax exemption is a de facto subsidy. Every dollar of tax not paid by a religious organization is another dollar somebody else must pay. Evangelicals (and Hindus, and atheists) shouldn’t be forced to pay higher income taxes to offset the tax revenue lost to the Mormon or Catholic church (both of which are fabulously wealthy), and vice versa.

    2) Having a religious tax exemption puts the government in the position of deciding what religion is and is not. Granting such status means that the government is officially recognizing an establishment of religion as such. Do we really want the state telling people whether their religion is legitimate or not? This seems contrary to at least the spirit of the Establishment Clause.

    3) Separating religion and politics is often an artificial divide, and it could be done away with if tax-exempt status was no longer an issue.

  • GregS

    First of all let’s straighten out a few things about “The Establishement Clause”.

    Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson paid clergy-taxes, i.e. property-taxes to support their local churches.

    State taxes paid for churches in several states well into the 19th century.

    This is what Europe still does.

    So be careful about what is and what is not “separation”

    Lobbying is not standing in front of a group and ranting about who you do and do not support, that is called “free speech”. It is the same free-speech as Barack Obama asking God to bless America.

    Mingling tax exempt funds with poltical funds…such as giving church funds to a candidate, now that is a violation.

  • GregS

    Churches are 501(c)3 organizations, which means that “no substantial part” of their activities can be lobbying. In exchange, contributions to those organizations are tax-deductible. There was a famous case involving the Sierra Club, where it lost its 501(c)3 status and was forced by the IRS to become a 501(c)4 organization. (not tax deductible) This was related to its lobbying against a proposed dam in the Grand Canyon.

    The Sierra Club has ALWAYS made their political agenda known – to their members.

    And therein lies the crust of the bisquit.

    When a pastor steps out of the pulpit and into the public sphere with church funds – that is when they are in violation.

    Which is essentially what the Sierra Club did by taking out ads in the New York Times to lobby the general public.

  • Bob Collins

    OK, let’s take a step back for a second and try to get back on the accuracy track.

    A non-profit organization is NOT prohibited from talking about issues or even pursuing one side of an issue.

    What a non-profit — as defined above — cannot do is actively endorse and support an individual candidacy.

    The Sierra Club IS as free to take out an ad on an issue as the good reverend in Warroad is free to do whatever he feels he needs to do on the issue of abortion — religiously and politically.

    Neither is free to actively support a candidate.

    I’ll give you a local example. A few years ago the Experimental Aviation Association chapter in the east metro printed an article in its newsletter encouraging support for a bill regarding airports in Minnesota. A month or so later, it encouraged its membership to work on behalf of getting the aviation-friendly lawmakers re-elected.

    The first is legal under the laws regarding non-profit organizations. The second is not.

    So let’s get back on the track with the thread. The good pastor acknowledges that he’s violating the law in this regard. Let’s get back to the question of whether the law as presently constituted is appropriate.

  • GregS

    The good pastor acknowledges that he’s violating the law in this regard.

    I must have missed something, the article said “Booth, 34, defended his actions in an interview Wednesday, saying his constitutional right to free expression trumps tax law, “and the Bible has been around longer than either.”

    I fail to see how a pastor speaking to his congregation violates the IRS laws. His statements did not extend passed his congregation.

    What should the law be?

    The IRS needs to back off.

    I would rather a pastor step across that line than the government. The main reason we have evangelicals becoming politically involved is because the state has been aggressively attacking them for half a century.

  • JenniferB

    I beg to differ. Almost any church service is a public meeting. This isn’t some private club where only members are allowed in. In that sense a pastor endorsing/opposing a candidate from the pulpit is a public declaration.

    Pastors have a great deal of influence over their members and communities, and that influence should not be abused to push their own personal agendas. They should focus on teaching the core morals and beliefs of their faith and trust their congregation to take what is taught to heart and let it influence the way they live their lives.

    But beyond that, it becomes an issue of integrity on the pastor’s part. He knows that their tax exempt status come with certain restrictions. If he is not willing to abide by those, then he is free to pastor a church that forgoes its tax exemptions.

  • Lesli

    So if Rev. Booth had made a blanket statement discouraging his congregation from voting for any candidate whose position on abortion was at odds with his belief system, would this be an issue?

  • Bob Collins

    That is a GREAT question, because it doesn’t involve a specific candidate.

  • GregS

    I found an interesting article on the subject, though I cannot vouch for its accuracy, the article covers what a pastor may or may not legally do.

    However, look how recent the laws are.

    In 1954, after being opposed by a nonprofit organization, then Senator Lyndon Johnson proposed legislation prohibiting nonprofits from either opposing or endorsing any candidate (which did not and still does not apply to appointed offices such as Supreme Court Justices). The code was amended without debate. Since that time, the political landscape has changed.

    See Politics from the Pulpit

  • Ken

    If a preacher is with a Church that enjoys “Tax Exempt” status and endorces a canidate, the Church very well can lose its exempt status!!!


  • Amy

    I live down the street from a one of the largest churches in my community (rochester, mi) and I was stunned to see the hundred plus signs telling people to vote no on a specific proposal. I do not see how this is okay in the eyes of the IRS. If they were to inform the people about the topic, that is one thing. But to have so many signs (perhaps they are all to take one after service?) directly telling them how to vote, isn’t that against the law for being tax exempt? I can’t find any news story on this issue, which is why I’m responding to this blog several months old.