Pulpit Political Picks

Thirty-three ministers endorsed a presidential candidate from the pulpit this past Sunday. As the Wall Street Journal reported,
“The Rev. Fran Pultro shrugged off federal laws restricting his role in partisan politics Sunday, telling 45 people at Calvary Chapel on the King’s Highway in Philadelphia that preserving conservative social values was of the utmost importance in this election.
‘As Christians it’s clear we should vote for John McCain,’ said Mr. Pultro from the church’s stage. ‘He is the only candidate I believe a Christian can vote for.’”
The Alliance Defense Fund (AADF), a conservative Christian legal group, actively recruited ministers to participate in what they termed “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” The ADF orchestrated this effort in order to challenge the IRS prohibition against pastors endorsing candidates in church. They have framed this as a first amendment issue and state on their website, “The sermons are intended to restore a pastor’s right to speak freely from his pulpit without fearing censorship or punishment by the government.”
The IRS statue in question dates to 1954, when then Senator Lyndon Johnson authored a bill to prohibit all 501(c)3 organizations from engaging in electoral politics. In this regard churches are viewed as other not-for-profit organizations that benefit from the ability to accept tax-exempt donations. Churches, and other 501(c)3 organizations may advocate for issues, but they cannot endorse candidates or actively campaign on their behalf.
A non-church example would be an environmental organization that is working to develop solar energy. Their staff is free to lobby congress for legislation and to write about the importance of green energy, but they can’t cross the line of telling people who to vote for, or providing direct support to any candidate. There are other forms of tax status that allow organizations to engage in electioneering.
The reason for all of this is that we, the people, are giving support to these non-profit through tax breaks. They, the organizations, accept these limitations of their work. Non-profit organizations do a lot of good for society, but it would be a conflict of interest for them to be using taxpayer supported income to campaign for candidates who could then help them with grants and/or other tax benefits. Besides, can you imagine the chaos that would result from the many special interests complaining about each others use of these tax advantages. It is better to keep it the way it is.
This is not a freedom of speech issue. Ministers are free to say anything they want from their pulpits. But they should not receive support from the government if they want to serve a campaign by direct political endorsements. I hope these thirty-three churches will find the freedom they seek separate for the tax breaks they enjoy as they continue their political efforts. I will be happy to continue to share my thoughts on Sunday morning without any candidate endorsements—there are plenty of other groups who are more than happy to tell us how to vote. I trust our members can make up their own minds.

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