• 401 Frederica Street, B-203
  • Owensboro, Kentucky 42301
  • (270) 685-2652 | FAX (270) 685-6074

The Influence of the Pulpit:

Pastors warned of political restrictions

by Lydia Johnson

New Orleans

Do local churches try to make a difference at the voting booth during election time, and if so, how far do they go?

Under federal law, churches, charities and other nonprofits are prohibited from engaging in political campaign activities that promote or oppose candidates or political parties. If they do so, they could lose their tax-exempt status.

But during the 2004 elections, churches and charities across the U.S. seemed to take a more aggressive political role, resulting in an array of complaints. The Internal Revenue Service investigated and found that, indeed, some churches and charities were engaging in prohibited activities. Rather than pursue prosecutions in most cases, the IRS decided to issue guidelines, putting the organizations on notice for the 2006 elections.


Who’s for a new hospital?
Who’s against it?

The Internal Revenue Service began a push to educate tax-exempt organizations about regulations that govern their tax-exempt status after receiving numerous complaints about partisan preaching during the 2004 election. In a study of 132 tax-exempt organizations, many of them churches, nearly three quarters were found to have engaged in political campaigning to some degree. In 55 cases, the IRS issued a written advisory. In three, it recommended revoking tax-exempt status (none of the three cases involved churches).
Many of the cases involved one-time violations or violations that could be addressed “short of revocation,” said Steve Pyrek, director of communication for the Tax-Exempt Government Entities with the IRS.

Altogether since 2004, the IRS has revoked the the 501(c)(3) status of 42 nonprofits, though none of them were churches. In fact, only one church has ever lost its tax-exempt status – the Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., in 1992. It had placed a full-page advertisement in The Washington Post and USA Today that attacked then Gov. Bill Clinton as a supporter of abortion, condoms in schools and homosexuality. “How then can we vote for Bill Clinton?” the ad asked. The church was listed as providing funding to support the ad.

After the ad ran, several articles in The New York Times questioned whether the church had violated IRS tax laws, which led the IRS to request information from the church on its activities. In 1995, the IRS revoked the church’s tax-exempt status retroactive to January 1992. The church appealed the ruling but the courts upheld the IRS.

The IRS can initiate a tax inquiry against a church only if its director of Exempt Organizations believes, based on a written summary of findings, that the church is not eligible for exempt status or is not paying tax that it should.

The IRS is not in the business of closing church doors, Pyrek said. But it must ensure that churches are abiding by the law. Providing literature on political parties, encouraging voter registration and even educating a congregation on views of candidates is clearly allowed by the IRS as long as churches do not promote one candidate over the other. In its “Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations,” the IRS states specifically what a church can and cannot do and gives examples of common situations that may arise. For instance:

    • It is permissible for a minister to be named in an advertisement as supporting a political candidate if the ad contains a statement that says the minister’s title and affiliation is included for identification purposes only. But a minister cannot in his church’s newsletter promote one candidate over another, even if he pays for that one publication from his own pocket.
    • A minister can endorse a candidate as long as it is not done at an official church function, in an official church publication or paid for by church funds. But a minister cannot from his pulpit tell his congregation to vote a particular way.
    • A minister can invite a candidate to speak at a church-sponsored event as long as he gives equal time to all candidates, he does not endorse any of them, all candidates are asked the same questions and all candidates are given equal time for speaking.
    • Voter guides are allowed as long as all candidates’ views are expressed in an unbiased fashion or are in the candidates’ own words.

Even with their extensive guidelines, the IRS must often determine whether a church has engaged in illegal politicking on a case-by-case basis, Pyrek said.

“The last recourse is revocation,” he said. “That’s what we do if all else fails.”

Still, churches have much latitude during election time and some push the law to its limits – the IRS is now investigating complaints against an organization of Christian conservative ministers in Ohio which is accused of helping a candidate win the Republican nomination for governor this past spring.

Given the national debate, the Public Life Advocate set out to learn the views of a sample of local ministers on mixing politics and religion. While many of those interviewed do include political messages in their sermons, most said they believe that there are limits to what churches should do and that they are aware of the limits imposed by federal tax laws.

Politics and the pulpit don’t mix, some say

The Rev. Carl McCarthy of St. Joseph and Paul said he welcomes the educational campaign that the IRS began earlier this year to inform churches what they can and cannot do this election season. He doesn’t want to see a repeat of the past presidential election when a Catholic priest refused to give communion to Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic candidate. Since then, the Catholic Church has stepped up efforts to avoid similar problems.

“We have been cautioned to be very careful about what we say and to remember that we are not to promote a particular party,” McCarthy said. “That’s not our purpose. Our purpose is to teach the love of Jesus.”

The Catholic Church encourages members of the congregation to learn about issues and candidates and to vote, McCarthy added, but it does not urge them to vote in any particular way.

Preaching politics from the pulpit is “a great disservice to the political system,” McCarthy added.

The Rev. Pat Connell of Trinity Episcopal holds similar views. Christians have an obligation to vote and to shape the world in which they live, he said. But that stops at encouraging the members of the congregation how to vote. Connell said he doesn’t provide them with voter guides, he doesn’t mention political candidates in his sermons when discussing issues, and he declines when he’s asked to hold political events.

“Neither party is particularly Christian. It’s not a religious party but a political party.”
-- Rev. Pat Connell, Trinity Episcopal Church

“This is a mistake that we are making in the political arena today, (thinking) that one party is more faithful than the other,” Connell said. “Neither party is particularly Christian. It’s not a religious party but a political party.”

Connell does encourage his parishioners to consider issues that would help to shape a larger “moral vision” without concentrating solely on one particular issue “The moral imperative is to create a moral vision,” Connell said. “I will never speak of specific issues from the pulpit.”

The Rev. Jonathon Carroll of First Presbyterian Church agrees that churches have a duty to educate their congregations on issues of the day, but he “would never mention a person or a platform.” He doesn’t provide voter guides either. In fact, he won’t even place a campaign sign in his yard.

“It’s always better to speak out against issues but not against people,” he added. “That’s the biggest problem with churches these days. Everything is about people and not issues.”

Religion and politics should “dance,” he said, but one should not control the other. And while church leaders cannot ignore the relevance of the biblical teachings to current issues, they should not lead the congregation to the voting booth, he added. That would be a “violation of their intellect and their ability to come to their own conclusion based on their own understanding.”

Voter guides used by some churches

Other local ministers do go further, providing their members with voter guides provided by a socially conservative organization, but said they do not discuss politics from the pulpit.

“We do have a responsibility to educate our people, but I don’t think the pulpit is the place to do that. The church was never designed to be a place to talk about politics,” said the Rev. Paul Strahan of First Baptist Church.

If asked, however, he would offer his views, he said. His church also provides voter guides distributed by the Family Trust Foundation of Kentucky, which is associated with the Family Foundation of Kentucky. The Family Foundation advocates for socially conservative political causes; in 2004, for instance, both the Family Trust Foundation and the Family Foundation contributed money to the campaign for a constitutional amendment in Kentucky to ban gay marriage.

However the foundation’s 2006 voter guides appear to follow the IRS guidelines in that they do not detail the foundation’s views (thus suggesting who to vote for). In addition, as the IRS advises, the guides pose questions on a variety of issues and allow candidates to respond in their own words.

The Rev. John Morse of Good Shepherd Assembly of God said he provides literature from the foundation as well, but he doesn’t promote one candidate over the other.

"any candidate that will stay within the mandates of the Bible, I encourage anybody to help promote them.”
-- Rev. Prince W. Woolfolk, Seventh Street Church of God

“We’re not promoting anyone, but we tell them where all the candidates stand,” Morse said. “When we come together, we’re not here to focus on politics. We’re here to focus on Jesus and how to live his commandments.”

The Rev. Ted Christman of Heritage Baptist Church says his church also provides voter guides. But politics is not the church’s primary concern, he said.

“I don’t believe it’s our responsibility to suggest who people should vote for. I’m more in favor of helping our people obtain literature that objectively portrays the views of all parties. I don’t believe we should be telling our people who they should vote for. I wouldn’t even do that if it were legal, because I don’t think that’s what God has called a church to do.”

The Rev. Prince W. Woolfolk at the Seventh Street Church of God said he encourages his congregation to vote, but does not tell them how they must vote. But he said “any candidate that will stay within the mandates of the Bible, I encourage anybody to help promote them.”


Copyright ©2005 Public Life Foundation of Owensboro
Site Development by Red Pixel Studios