Church, state, and the political campaign

Mac Hammond, the head of a megachurch in Brooklyn Park, has joined the campaign of Rep. Michele Bachmann, sending people scurrying for the Internal Revenue Service’s statutes on churches and politics.

“She is a sister in the Lord that is as committed to his word as any of you in here are,” he told his flock., while noting that it’s a personal endorsement, not a marshaling of religious forces.

Churches — and every other tax-exempt non-profit — are barred from endorsing a particular candidate in exchange for the tax breaks the institutions enjoy. Several pastors in Minnesota have openly defied the ban with few apparent consequences.

It’s a slippery slope for the IRS to monitor. On the Sunday before the 2004 presidential election, for example, the pastor of a California church delivered an anti-war, anti-poverty sermon (which was called, “If Jesus debated Senator Kerry and President Bush”), and complaints to the IRS led to a two-year probe into whether the church had, in effect, endorsed John Kerry for president. But it took no action against the church, saying it believed it was a “one-time occurrence.”

Where did the ban on church politicking come from? Then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson in 1954, according to the IRS:

In 1954, Congress approved an amendment by Sen. Lyndon Johnson to prohibit 501(c)(3) organizations, which includes charities and churches, from engaging in any political campaign activity. To the extent Congress has revisited the ban over the years, it has in fact strengthened the ban. The most recent change came in 1987 when Congress amended the language to clarify that the prohibition also applies to statements opposing candidates.

There’ll be another challenge to the no-politics-from-the-pulpit rule this Sunday. The Alliance Defense Fund, a group of conservative Christian preachers, is holding another Pulpit Freedom Sunday.

Speak Up Movement Promo from Josh Garlow on Vimeo.

A survey last year from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found about half of the public (52%) thinks churches should keep out of politics, “while 43% say churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political questions.” That survey reversed the narrow majority in a similar polls from 1996 to 2006, that found people think churches belong in the political arena.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Megachurch? How about mega absurdities – The IRS goes after a pastor for preaching peace, while these Christians in name only get a free pass to ignore the regulation. The apocalypse is nigh.

    (And “conservative Christian” should be an oxymoron.)

  • John P.

    Express views on social and political matters, sure. Endorse candidates, no. It seems to me it’s not the same question, so I don’t seed how we can talk about “reversing a narrow majority”.

  • Alison

    I don’t have a problem with pastors endorsing candidates. They have every right to do it. Just don’t expect the tax breaks. The free in ‘free’ speech isn’t the monetary definition of the word.

  • matt

    I have never been a big fan of tax exempt status anyways so you will get no argument from me to strip churches but that standard should be equally applied to all tax exempts…unions, Chamber of Commerce, NRA, NPR, MPR, Planned Parenthood, NORML, CATO, NAMBLA, Greenpeace, Santa Claus and any other section 501 entity.