Constitution Corner – Pastors and Politics

In 1954, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson found himself being opposed for re-election by certain pastors in his home state of Texas.  Johnson got his revenge by having inserted into the IRS Code what became known as The Johnson Amendment.  The amendment inserted into Section 501(c)(3) the words that entities who are exempt from federal income tax cannot:

“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.”

 To violate this provision puts at risk the organization’s tax-exempt status, and groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Freedom From Religion Foundation now fiercely look for violations.  Since a church’s tax-exempt status and thus the ability of its contributors to deduct their donations on their tax return is viewed as so precious, few pastors are willing to say anything that touches political topics.  It was not always this way.

During the colonial period, especially the 20-40 years leading up to independence, pastors routinely delivered “political” messages from their pulpits.  A sampling:  Rev. Johathan Mayhew (1750): “Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers (which actually argues in favor of the opposite);” Rev. Samuel Cooke (1770): “The True Principles of Civil Government;” Rev. William Gordon (1774): “The Christian Duty of Resistance to Tyrants;”  Rev. Samuel Langdon (1775): “The Right of Self-Government is From God;”  Rev. Samuel West (1776): “The True Principles of Government;” and Rev. Phillips Payson (1778): “The True Spirit of Liberty.”

These and similar sermons can be found in: Political Sermons of the American Founding Era: 1730-1805.

To be sure, these sermons did not argue for or against the election of certain individuals; but many spoke to the traits that a candidate worthy of election should embody.  They ensured that the congregations which heard them (or those individuals who read the inevitable printed version) understood the biblical view of law and government, and the imperative of resistance to tyranny.  Library of Congress historian Catherine Millard wrote: “Independence was boldly preached from Scripture throughout the thirteen original States during the American Revolution.”

Part of the reticence of today’s pastors comes from lack of understand the actual IRS guidelines.  The twenty-seven words of the Johnson Amendment have been “interpreted” by the IRS to mean:

Prohibited activities:

  •  Contributing financially to political campaigns.
  • Making public statements of position (verbal and written) in favor of or in opposition to candidates for office.
  • Inviting only one candidate in a political campaign to address the congregation.
  • Distributing voters guides containing questions demonstrating a bias on certain issues.
  • Endorsing certain candidates.
  • Campaign activities by employees within the context of their employment.
  • Failing to “disavow” the campaign activities of persons operating under “apparent authorization” from the church.
  • Engaging in fund raising on behalf of a candidate.
  • Newspaper ads urging voters to vote for or against a candidate.
  • Posting on church web sites information either supporting or opposing candidates for public office.
  • Posting on church web sites links to candidate-related material, if the facts and circumstances indicate that one or more candidates are being supported or opposed.

Permitted activities (according to the IRS):

  •  Providing a forum for all candidates to address the church.
  • Public comments made by ministers and other church employees in connection with political campaigns if not made at church facilities or in church publications, and if accompanied by a statement that the comments are strictly personal and not intended to represent the church.
  • Inviting all candidates for a political office to address the congregation.
  • Providing an opportunity for a candidate to speak in a non-candidate capacity.
  • Distributing a compilation of voting records of all members of Congress on major legislative issues involving a wide range of subjects.
  • Neutral voter registration drives.

As you can see, there is wide latitude here for pastors to act and speak “politically.”  But aren’t any restrictions at all on ministers an infringement of their First Amendment rights?  What happened to that “Wall of Separation” thing?  Secularists don’t want government to be influenced in any way by religion, but they certainly don’t mind telling pastors what they can and cannot do.  Yes, pastors can be influential, but I suspect Miley Cyrus influences more people in a single concert than some pastors do in their lifetime.

The “Speak Up” movement views the restrictions as decidedly unconstitutional and urges pastors around the country to purposefully violate the guidelines as an act of defiance.

Atheists, of course, become apoplectic over this.  They recently sued the IRS, arguing that a lack of specific procedures kept the IRS from enforcing the guidelines.  The suit was dropped when the IRS promised to become more aggressive.

Even if you accept the IRS prohibitions as valid, there is still much pastors can do to educate and energize their congregations, to encourage them to engage in the political process.  To what end?  To help preserve a culture that was, at one time, thoroughly Christian in character; to resist cultural trends that are demonstrably un-Christian.  As former Attorney General Ed Meese put it: “Pastors can lead the way in motivating the faithful to wise stewardship of their citizenship responsibilities.”

But what of a related issue: pastors themselves in politics.

Early Virginia law (as well as other states) actually prohibited clergy from holding public office, a prohibition that was soon repealed.  Pastors immediately began running for office and demonstrating that they were not interested in turning the state into a theocracy.

As late as 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court acted (in McDaniel v. Paty) to reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of Tennessee and strike down Tennessee’s remaining statute barring clergy from elected office (in this case being a delegate to a state constitutional convention).

Today there is a national effort to get even more clergy into elected offices at all levels.  Evangelical activist David Lane, leader of The American Renewal Project, hopes to encourage 1,000 evangelical pastors to run for office in 2016.  This brings to mind Proverbs 29:2, which states “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.”

In my view, pastors should carefully reevaluate the claimed benefits of tax-exempt status for their church.  Christians should as well re-evaluate whether tax-deductibility should be the determining factor in deciding whether to tithe or even contribute to their church.  In my view, without the unnecessary  encumbrance and entanglement of 501(c)(3) incorporation, pastors would be more free to preach with the liberty that God requires of them.

Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative, Inc., a project to inform Americans about the Founder’s view of their Constitution.  This essay appeared on 29 January in the Fairfax Free Citizen and Yorktown Crier and was discussed on WFYL Radio on 30 January.

© 2015 Constitution Leadership Initiative, Inc.  Permission to reproduce for educational purposes is hereby provided.