Politics in the Pulpit

A recent RNS article written by Sarah Pulliam Bailey revealed that a commission of religious leaders is advocating for clergy members to be able to endorse political candidates from the pulpit without losing tax-exempt status.  The commission recommends that clergy members should be able to say “whatever they believe is appropriate” from the pulpit.  Under current regulations, clergy members are allowed to speak on political issues but cannot endorse a specific candidate for office.

My initial reaction was shared by the individuals who commented on the article: if a congregation wants the ability to discuss candidates from their pulpits, then there is nothing stopping them from willingly forfeiting their tax-exempt status to do so.  If a congregation decides that endorsing candidates is a priority, they can accept the financial consequences of that decision.

But as I followed this train of thought, I encountered a question begging to be asked – if a congregation wants to or is talking about politics and political candidates to the extent that it influences their status with the IRS, can that congregation still be considered a church?

Don’t get me wrong.  I believe that faith should influence public life, including public policy.  My understanding of Christ and the Gospel is foundational to how I think the poor, the underprivileged, those imprisoned, and others should be treated.  I strongly believe that the Church should be a prophetic voice as we as a society address the most pressing issues that affect us and our future.

Religious leaders who are fighting for the ability to endorse political candidates need to reassess the goals of their ministry.

Yes, pastors and faith leaders should always encourage their congregants to consider the public repercussions of their personal faiths.  How a person understands God and the Scriptures should always inform how he or she lives out their daily lives.

But the Kingdom of God and the Gospel of Christ is much more than political ideology or one party’s agenda.  And churches should be about unity and oneness, instead of promoting things that cause divisions.  A congregation that focuses more on political campaigns than it does on the Scriptures and discipleship is misguided and should be cause for concern.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comment below.

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3 thoughts on “Politics in the Pulpit

  1. I don’t mean to say that denominations should align themselves with political parties. I don’t think that any denomination or individual church today should do so, nor do I think it is necessarily appropriate for church’s to endorse political candidates.

    But that’s more due to the current political realities rather than principle. I really don’t think there’s much of a difference between political parties in America right now. And among firm supporters of either party, most people are going to say that differences are from differences in perspective, experience and opinion rather than the other side being morally bankrupt or evil.

    But as soon as we say that church’s shouldn’t endorse or oppose on principle or code it into law, we lose some of our ability to be prophetic. Bonhoeffer opposed a political party and political actors through the church and it wasn’t that long ago. Just because pragmatism says we shouldn’t do so today doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do so tomorrow.

    I guess with regard to your last question, I think the IRS guidelines are almost pretty good in this regard. They do not allow endorsing or opposing a specific candidate (which I oppose), but they say that if a church on issue based advocacy only talks about these issues around election time and does so with direct or implied reference to a candidate (among other things to be considered) then they are at risk of losing their task exempt status. I think the same can be said about the church risking its definition as a church.

    Basically, political advocacy whether related to candidates or issues is okay, but if you only do it around election time and ignore it all other times and do so in reference to one person only, then you’ve probably abandoned your identity as a church.

    …i really liked your post by the way. thanks for making me think about all this stuff.

  2. Churches are inherently political. The gospels clearly oppose Rome, Caesar, and the temple authority at the time. Opposition to political figures by name (or by implication) is one of the most common themes in the bible.

    Certain books of the bible clearly endorse political figures. While there were no elections, political entities were certainly competing for power. Biblical authors are not shy about saying who they are for and who they are against. They go so far as to say that God is on the side of one political figure and opposed to another – statements that the modern day religious would say are wildly inappropriate.

    Church history clearly shows the church opposing and supporting political figures. This wasn’t always done with the most noble of intentions, but it has been the norm in church history, not the exception.

    I think churches should be free to say whatever they want about whatever topic they want without fear of political retribution. I also think they should be taxed in the same way that every other organization is taxed. The fear of losing tax exempt status and bankrupting a church is an effective way to ensure that churches don’t speak politically in any meaningful way. For an organization that follows scripture, which clearly chooses sides, and for an organization that follows in discipleship to Jesus, who clearly chooses sides, not choosing a side and being politically muted is a sure way for a church to abandon its mission, succumb to empire and live in prophetic silence.

    • Craig, I think you raise really valid points. I guess what I am having trouble wrapping my mind around is how this idea would play out given the organizational structure of churches we have today. Should national denominations align themselves with specific political parties? If a local congregation endorses a specific candidate, how that that make them different from a civic organization that just happens to be made up of people of faith?

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