Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Politicizing the pulpit

Churches and religious groups have substantial tax exemptions. While they are allowed to advocate on general issues, they are not allowed to advocate for particular candidates. Thus, there is a fine line between preaching and politicking.

A recent article in the LA Times examines efforts on the religious right to challenge those rules. Basically, they want to keep their tax exemptions, while being able to advocate explicitly for candidates and viewpoints. The net effect of this is a tax-payer subsidy to their political views.

This new activism has substantial muscle behind it: a cadre of experienced Christian organizers and some of the conservative movement's most generous donors, who are setting up technologically sophisticated operations to reach pastors and their congregations in battleground states....

Both Republican and Democratic strategists say that pastors have already helped unleash an army of voters to shape the GOP primary contests in Iowa and South Carolina, two states with large numbers of conservative Christians. They are making plans to do the same in states that are even more important to next year's general election. Those include Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Virginia and Colorado, where evangelical voters make up about a quarter of the electorate and their participation could greatly aid Republicans.
What happens when a church becomes a political advocacy organization more than a church? One of the pastors profiled in the article admits that some of his longtime parishioners with different political views have left the parish. But he doesn't care: he is fired up with politics.

If this seems like an attack on the rules that separate church and state, it is a very deliberate one.
As pastors speak out on political matters, they've drawn admonitions from groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which warns that such activism could jeopardize their churches' nonprofit status. But the religious leaders are bolstered by well-funded Christian legal organizations supporting their cause.

The most prominent — the Alliance Defense Fund, a group based in Scottsdale, Ariz., that spent $32 million in fiscal year 2010 — is challenging a 1954 tax code amendment that prohibits pastors, as leaders of tax-exempt organizations, from supporting or opposing candidates from the pulpit. The group sponsors Pulpit Freedom Sunday, in which it offers free legal representation to churches whose pastors preach about political candidates and are then audited by the Internal Revenue Service. (So far, no IRS investigations have been triggered.)
I'm sure I don't have to remind this audience of the IRS investigation of All Saints Pasadena a few years ago for preaching an anti-war sermon. Seems the rules are different for the right wing.

And since Rep Bachmann and Gov Perry are making explicit their connections to the religious right wing in their efforts to win the Republican nomination, I suspect we'll see even more of this.

Indeed the connections are already deep between the religious right-wing and the politicians, as Congressional staffers are sent to be trained by them.
This spring, four House Republicans used money from their Congressional office accounts to send five staff members to a training seminar run by a conservative Christian group in Indiana that is leading the charge in the state for an amendment to ban gay marriage.
Apparently, this is perfectly legal. So the reports of the demise of the religious right as a political force are decidedly premature.

JCF points us to an essay by Wayne Besen bemoaning the absence of liberal Christians to push back against this mobilization, as media and popular culture allow the fundies to speak for Christians.
Time and again, I’m disillusioned by the lack of support from liberal and mainstream Christian organizations. It seems they are either afraid to offend their most conservative members or they are mired in passivity that allows extremists to define their faith.

This lack of coherent opposition has led to a dire situation where Religious Right backed presidential candidates are vying to eliminate or reduce social safety nets, persecute immigrants, undermine working people, shred the middle class, turn the poor into destitute beggars, and roll back minority rights.

This reluctance to stand up and speak out has created a hazardous vacuum where only the shrill and unreasonable voices of fundamentalism are heard. Instead of the dialogue that many progressives of faith claim to desire, this perceived weakness creates a lopsided right wing monologue, which is having a deleterious effect on our nation and the world.
So, let's discuss.
  1. What is the proper place of politicking from the pulpit?
  2. Should churches enjoy tax-exemption while becoming explicitly political?
  3. Are liberal Christians really absent from the fray?


dr.primrose said...

One of the significant issues here is what is "political" under the IRS rules. These rules apply to all Section 501(c)(3) organizations, not just churches.

The IRS has put out a number of publications concerning this issue, such as Election Year Activities and the Prohibition on Political Campaign Intervention for Section 501(c)(3) Organizations.

As this publication notes, the rules are a bit nuanced about what charities may, and may not, do.

The main rule is that charities are absolutely barred from supporting or opposing candidates for political office. "Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. The prohibition applies to all campaigns including campaigns at the federal, state and local level."

On the other hand, charities are permitted to take positions on public policy issues. "Under federal tax law, section 501(c)(3) organizations may take positions on public policy issues, including issues that divide candidates in an election for public office. However, section 501(c)(3) organizations must avoid any issue advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention. Even if a statement does not expressly tell an audience to vote for or against a specific candidate, an organization delivering the statement is at risk of violating the political campaign intervention prohibition if there is any message favoring or opposing a candidate. A statement can identify a candidate not only by stating the candidate’s name but also by other means such as showing a picture of the candidate, referring to political party affiliations, or other distinctive features of a candidate’s platform or biography. All the facts and circumstances need to be considered to determine if the advocacy is political campaign intervention."

The issue becomes more difficult concerning the ability of the leaders of charities to speak. "The political campaign intervention prohibition is not intended to restrict free expression on political matters by leaders of organizations speaking for themselves, as individuals. Nor are leaders prohibited from speaking about important issues of public policy. However, for their organizations to remain tax exempt under section 501(c)(3), leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions of the organization. To avoid potential attribution of their comments outside of organization functions and publications, organization leaders who speak or write in their individual capacity are encouraged to clearly indicate that their comments are personal and not intended to represent the views of the organization."

This particular publication also has guidelines concerning candidate appearances at churches, mailing lists, and voter guides.

The IRS has also published a guide for churches, Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations, which reiterates these same rules in a more church-specific context. It also outlines the rules concerning churches' attempts to influence legislation (which also includes initiatives and referencums), which is permitted so long as it does not consitute a "substantial part" of the churches' activies.

Personally, I think the IRS rules strike about the right balance here. The clergy in the L.A. Times story want to endorse candidates; that's over the line and their Section 501(c)(3) status should be yanked. Politically, I also think their attitude is quite stupid -- from what I've read, the overwhelming number of voters are strongy opposed to churches' politicking for candidates.

JCF said...

Off-topic again.

Troy Davis executed. Horrible, horrible, horrible!

Lord have mercy.

RIP, Troy.

Brother David said...

Why JCF, because you bought into the idea that he was innocent or because you are opposed to the death penalty?

TX also executed a man yesterday. He was one of the three white racists found guilty of dragging James Bird, Jr, over three miles on TX country backroads tied to the rear of a truck, to his death.

JCF said...

I'm opposed to the death penalty in ALL cases, Dahveed...but because I'm human, I'm also influenced by the feelings that some humans are LESS deserving of State-authorized murder than others (a possibly innocent man, vs a guilty-of-hate-crime man. But may Russell Brewer RIP, too.)

JCF said...

I'm sure it's too late to revive this thread, but Leonardo is addressing something similar to what I requested, here.