Who Would Jesus Endorse—Pulpit Freedom Sunday

September 24, 2012

On October 7, 2012, hundreds of clergy will intentionally defy the law by engaging in actions they might describe as coordinated civil disobedience. I view it as an unjustifiable defiance of the law and a constitutionally unsound attempt to get the government to subsidize political endorsements by clergy.

As tax-exempt organizations, churches (temples, mosques, etc.) are forbidden from endorsing or opposing candidates for office. The same prohibition applies to all 501 (c)(3) (charitable, nonprofit) organizations, including CFI.  This has been the case since Congress enacted this restriction in 1954. The principal rationale for this prohibition is that 501(c)(3) organizations are indirectly subsidized by the government under our tax code.  Contributions to such organizations may be deducted from one’s income, resulting in a lower tax being paid by the person who made the charitable contribution, and therefore, less revenue for the government.  Such indirect subsidies are arguably justifiable on the ground that charitable organizations serve the public good. 

But in recent years, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an organization providing legal services to churches and individuals who want greater “religious freedom,” has promoted open defiance of the governing law, encouraging clergy to take to the pulpit on a designated Sunday and expressly endorse political candidates.  ADF candidly admits that one reason it promotes this event is that it is hoping that the IRS will take action against at least one church, revoking its tax exemption, which will then provide the basis for a constitutional challenge to the current law. 

In promoting its Pulpit Freedom Sunday, ADF disingenuously argues that for nearly 200 years (1789-1954), clergy were free to endorse candidates and they often did so.  This is true.  For example, there were many antebellum clergy who embraced slavery and angrily denounced candidates such as Abraham Lincoln. However, ADF ignores the fact that tax deductions for charitable organizations did not begin until the Revenue Act of 1917.  Thus, clergy were only able to receive government subsidies while endorsing candidates for about 37 years, until the government recognized this was bad public policy. 

And it is bad public policy to allow clergy to make political endorsements.  Religion has too much influence on politics as it is without turning the churches into government-subsidized campaign venues.  Political partisanship is already very intense; yet the ADF now wants clergy to be able to demonize candidates from the pulpits? 

The argument that current law restricts religious freedom is, of course, pure poppycock.  There is no abridgment of religious freedom because there is no compulsion to accept tax-exempt status.  Any minister is perfectly free to say whatever s/he wants about any political candidate —provided the church first relinquishes its tax-exempt status.  But the money-hungry pastors won’t do that, of course, because it is not religious freedom they are after.  It is the freedom to conduct partisan political campaigns from the pulpit while receiving a government subsidy. 

Pulpit Freedom Sunday is Subsidized Theocracy Sunday. 

Finally, I note that if clergy are to give campaign speeches on October 7, I think that anyone who wanted to attend these campaign rallies should be free to engage in that great American tradition of heckling. If clergy want to invoke hellfire to support some candidate, I hope someone in the audience has the courage to give ‘em hell right back. Hecklers will not be interfering with a worship service; they’ll just be interrupting a speech by a political hack.


#1 Ophelia Benson on Monday September 24, 2012 at 5:57pm

They always want it both ways, don’t they.

#2 Lisa Kerr (Guest) on Monday September 24, 2012 at 6:05pm

I may have to visit a church that day so I can heckle.

In all seriousness, there’s no restriction on religious freedom. If a preacher wants to give political speeches, he or she is in the wrong profession.

It’s way overdue for us to tax churches. I hope that happens before I die.

#3 Nicole Introvert (Guest) on Tuesday September 25, 2012 at 3:08am

I would love it if a bunch of folks against the tax-free status showed up to random churches dressed in suits with badges that said “IRS” on Sunday and milled about suspiciously.

#4 Sherrill (Guest) on Tuesday September 25, 2012 at 3:01pm

Nicole, I love your idea!

#5 craig gosling (Guest) on Saturday September 29, 2012 at 7:11pm

If the majority of churches endorsed Obama, the religious right would drop the whole matter. Great article, thanks.

#6 Joseph F (Guest) on Tuesday October 02, 2012 at 9:03pm

IRS: “We don’t steal from you. Therefore you don’t have a right to free speech.” Seems legit.

#7 Mary Bradley (Guest) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 at 8:45am

Churches should be taxed.  Everyone who uses roads, municipal water systems, or electricity in America should pay taxes.  These utilities are subsidies heavily and our monthly use bill doesn’t come anywhere near covering the cost.  No one is an island and not recognizing the things that taxation provides will be our downfall.

#8 craig gosling (Guest) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 at 9:08am

The voice of religion is weakening, more people are giving it up, and secularism is on the rise. Soon, as in Germany and other western countries, USA Churches will not be able to survive on their own; they will be in recession and will increasingly need government aid. Church leaders and their political followers realize their predicament and will increase their attempts to “get free stuff”. Our job as secularists, is to fight them every inch of the way. Time is on our side, the tide is changing so we must not get discouraged. Great article by Ron. Thanks

#9 Jack Officer (Guest) on Wednesday October 03, 2012 at 9:38am

cause I want to cast my vote based on the option from preaching pedifiles.

#10 craig gosling (Guest) on Thursday October 04, 2012 at 7:42pm

Jesus would have favored socialism. His care for the poor, against the rich, for charity, against war, against interfering with government, means he probably would vote for Obama. Blatant church meddling in politics will result in a law suit that will be appealed to the SC. That is, of course, what they are hoping. I can’t believe they will win, but it will all depend upon Roberts.

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