Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Religion and politics in Ohio

Get Religion calls our attention to this piece about political ambivalence in three Ohio megachurches. There are even transcripts of interviews with the pastors. I won’t say that anyone breaks any new ground, or says anythng particularly penetrating, but it is worth noting that the talk about prophetic witness and not being yoked to a political party comes from folks who you’d generally find residing on the right side of the political spectrum.

Discussions - 7 Comments

Thank you for the article. I am working with a professor and he is writing an article about the Tax Code’s prohibition of churches getting involved in political campaigns. I am sure he will be interested in these articles.

I wonder if the prohibition has normalized the idea that churches should not be political, or if it existed even before churches would lose their tax exempt status for being political?

What I found interesting is the poll question posed by the Dispatch along with the article. The question asked, "Should churches tell their followers how to vote on political candidates and issues?"

First of all, as a Social Studies teacher, I was shocked at how poorly understood the Establishment Clause is by the folks who took the time to answer the question. It’s a poor statement on education that these responses reflect the opinions of those with a higher than usual level of interest in the subject, and yet, the responses still show that many believe that Jefferson’s "wall" is actually part of the Constitution.

Secondly, the question itself is absurd and shows the bias of the Dispatch. I challenge anyone to find examples in megachurches of pastors who tell their congregations who to vote for on election day. It simply can’t be done, but the question leads readers to believe that it’s done all the time.

Kyle Farmer:

I think you underestimate the powers of innuendo and the like, although explicit candidate endorsement does go on quite a bit. I’ll discuss the explicit endorsement first.

Explicit endorsement occurs a lot in Black churches. I read an article just a week or so ago discussing how Blackwell was counting on Black ministers to tell their churches to vote for him. Kerry and Clinton spent a lot of time speaking at Black churches, that is pretty close to explicit endorsement. Another instance of explicit endorsement was in a smaller, orthodox Jewish community in New York. The rabbi meet with Hilliary Clinton during her first Senate campaign. He liked her, told the community he approved, and then something like 99% of the community voted for her.

Implicit endorsement often happens through use of code words, such as "liberal" or "conservative", "pro-life" "pro-choice." An example of an implied endorsement is the All Saints Church in Pasadena (I believe, it is somewhere in the LA area). A week before the 2004 election a retired pastor had a sermon where Jesus held a debate with Kerry and Bush. Jesus told Bush that preemptive war was immoral, and a failure. It is pretty clear who the person is to vote for. The Catholic Church also tends to endorse pro-life (Republican mostly because Democrats are so solid on the issue) in their circulars and stuff, stating that "true Catholics" will always vote pro-life.

You miss the point concerning the 1st amendment though. Churches are free to say whatever they want. If they do speak against candidates however, they lose tax exempt status (they will have to pay income tax) and contributions to the church are no longer tax deductible. If pastors wish to run their church like a normal business, paying taxes and the like, they can say whatever they want.

Steve,

I have a pretty solid understanding of implicit versus explicit endorsement. The problem is that I don’t see any examples of explicit endorsement in your post including the well-known example from All Saints. I believe that All Saints was at least investigated by the IRS as a result of that sermon. So, in thousands upon thousands of churches across the US in the most heated Presidential contest in recent memory, there is only one example of implicit endorsement and no examples of explicit endorsement? This makes my point that the Dispatach is making news rather than reporting it.

Are you arguing that a Rabbi or Pastor does not have the right to endorse a candidate? Why must we assume that if Pastor X endorses a candidate then Pastor X’s church must also endorse that candidate? Also, I’d like for you to cite the article where Ken Blackwell said that he was counting on black ministers to tell their congregations to vote for him. I don’t believe that quote or article exists. I do believe that the Blackwell campaign is hoping that support from African-American leaders (including pastors) will help to boost his support among a particular demographic group, in this case urban/African-American voters. I believe that Pastors don’t hand in their right to free speech when they enter seminary and should be allowed to endorse any candidate that they want at any time they want to except directly from the pulpit.

The most troubling part of your argument for me, however, is the part about implicit endorsements. Can you show me one example where the Catholic Church has explicitly endorsed a candidate? I don’t believe that you can. Now, you say that because of the theological teachings of the church regarding life, that the church as made an implicit endorsement. If we play out your thought-process, churches will never be able to take a stand on controversial issues because each stand might be an implicit endorsement. I feel that this is the long-term strategy of the left to accomplish their social agenda. In other words, for liberals, it’s not so much about getting the church out of politics as it is about getting the church out of the culture war. Once that happens, the political realm becomes easy.

I have some sympathy for your thoughts in your final paragraph. I would go one step further though and simply tax exempt all churches regardless of their political activities and let the free market sort it out. I think this follows the true spirit of the First Amendment more closely than the IRS investigating churches based on the politically motivated allegations of some pastors.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Steve. I am enjoying the discussion! -Kyle Farmer

Kyle:

I’ll respond to some of your points, though not all of them. I gave you all of the examples I know of.

The Blackwell article was in The Other paper, a weekly newspaper published and distributed in Columbus. I think it has good political articles. The Reporter asked a GOP person what Blackwell was going to do, and they said get Black ministers to support him, and then the reporter said that was contrary to the law, and the GOP guy said something like, well, you know how it goes. I can get you the article if you want it, it was out a couple of weeks ago.

During the 2004 campaign there was a lot of church activity. The IRS cannot investigate every church, and when they do, they are not allowed to say anything about the investigation--including that it is ongoing. The only way the public would know about the investigation is if the church told people. Some churches probably won’t want to.

I agree that implicit endorsement presents problems taken to its logical extreme, but the IRS has to enforce the law, and that includes stopping sneaky people from technically complying with it, but violating its spirit. If a church said something like "vote for conservative candidates" then it would clearly be campaign intervention because only one party is conservative, etc. If people were not so full of schemes to get around the law the IRS would not have to get so crazy.

I completely disagree with your last paragraph. Disregarding 1st amendment issues, it would be completely unfair to allow churches to intervene in campaigns and maintain a special tax status (the section 170 charitable deduction of 50%) while forcing other political speech groups (the section 527 groups) into a less advantageous position because their donors cannot deduct their donations from their income (nor could estates and trusts). This would give churches a much more powerful political voice to the disadvantage of people who are not religious, and that seems very unfair.

There is a proposal to do what you want done, it has been proposed the last two Congresses. It would allow churches to intervene in campaigns and maintain their favorable tax status. No one has acted on it, and no one probably will.

Finally, nothing is stopping churches from establishing affilated 527s to speak. It is just that they could not use church money to support such an entity.

Steve,

Thanks for your reply. I appreciate your thoughts. I will try to find that article from The Other Paper. However, it sounds to me much like the scenario in my previous post coupled with an ignorant reporter. It’s not illegal for black ministers to support Ken Blackwell. Where the line is crossed is if they would advocate his election to their congregations from the pulpit. I don’t think this is/has/will be happening. I’m probably giving too much credit to the reporter. They probably know this, but they are just stirring up controversy among people who think that religious leaders have surrendered their First Amendment rights.

I’m still not sure that I agree that there was a great deal of illegal church activity in the 2004 election. The All Saints, World Harvest, and Fairfield Christian IRS investigations have each received a huge amount of national publicity, so I believe that had there been numerous other investigations between 04 and now, we would have heard about many of them in the media.

I’m not sure if you consider yourself to be a conservative, but as a conservative myself, the absolute last thing that I want is a federal agency, like the IRS, enforcing the "spirit" rather than the letter of the law. By the way, I think that voters in Zell Miller’s state might find that Democrats can be conservative as well as Republicans. Liberal/Conservative is not bound by party, and it’s not a scheme to get around IRS statutes to teach religious truths.

You make a very good point in your last paragraph, but let me ask you one question. Why does the free exercise portion of the First Amendment not allow churches to explicitly endorse candidates?

Again, thanks for your thoughts! -Kyle Farmer

Kyle:

I’ll address your concerns in the order you raised them.

#1 Even if there were not a lot of cases this does not indicate there is not a lot of campaign intervention by churches. Remember what the pro-Iraq War people said when few to no WMDs were found, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." This is especially true concerning churches because the tax code (Code) is structured in such a way that it is hard for the IRS to know what churches are doing. Section 6033 exempts churches from the informational filing requirements other tax exempt organizations have to do (these are similar to individual tax returns we do each year). Because the IRS cannot read informational returns it is hard for them to catch odd expenditures. Also, setion 7611 requires a District Director (the country is divided into revenue districts), or the IRS Commissioner to have a "reasonable belief" before they audit a church. This basically means the churches actions have already gotten out. Finally, the IRS is hesitant to investigate churches except in the most extreme cases where they will win because it is such bad publicity.

2. I may have misspoke when I said "spirit." The prohibition is so vague that the IRS really has nothing concrete to enforce except for some spirit. I will copy the relevant prohibition for you, from section 501(c)(3) of the Code: "which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office." I have almost no idea what this means, and neither does anyone else. To make matters worse, the amendment has no legislative history (explaination), and its author was LBJ who was very sneaky when it came to politics. What I do know is that the Code gives the IRS the authority to make regulations enforcing the Code, and because 501(c)(3) is so vague, the IRS can make almost any kind of rule it wants concerning it, and courts will find the rule valid.

Finally, you still seem to be confusing the question. Churches are free to speak about politics as much as they wish, any group can, it is just they will lose their tax exemption and the ability to collect donations that individuals may deduct from their income for income tax purposes. The more appropriate question is whether the 1st amendment requires that churches get tax breaks? I do not think it does, but the person I worked for this summer (who is very smart on this issue) thinks it does (but he is in a very small minority of smart people who think it does).

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