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Politics from the Pulpit

November 6 is Election Day in the United States. Every year, the American people help decide who will represent this country in the White House, in Congress, and in our state and local governments.

Certainly, the officials we elect each year will impact areas that are important to you, not only as an individual, but as a church leader. These elected leaders will have a say in your future education, healthcare, retirement, and taxation. And some ballot issues that affect your local community may clash head-on with your values and beliefs.

As a leader in your church, you are also a leader in your community. Are you aware of what role you can play in this election as a religious and community leader?

Certainly, it’s no secret that the IRS has rules that forbid a church to engage in partisan politics. As stated in section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code, a church that is exempt from federal income taxation cannot:

“Participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

But what does this mean? Can the church host candidates and pass out voter guides? Can a pastor speak about political issues and provide guidance from a biblical perspective?

The short answer is yes—but you must proceed with caution. Educational activities, voter guides, and voter registration drives are allowed, as long as they don’t promote one candidate over another.

That means the activity cannot be biased in any way. Further, churches can take a stand on specific issues of public policy, but the church should not endorse a particular candidate.

Consider the Consequences
Under current law, the IRS certainly has the ability to revoke the church’s tax-exempt status. If that happens, the impact to the church and its members is great. For example:

  • The church will be subject to federal and state income taxation.
  • The church may lose its property tax exemption and sales tax exemption.
  • Donors will lose the deductibility of their contributions (which may require amendments to previous year’s tax returns and additional taxes).
  • Ministers’ housing allowance may be affected.
  • Organizational leaders may be personally liable for penalties.

Repealing the Johnson Amendment?

President Trump has vowed to repeal this political ban on churches--often referred to as the Johnson Amendment. However, only Congress can change this law. Instead, President Trump issued an executive order in 2017 promoting free speech and religious liberty. The order states “it shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom.” The President often touts this order as giving churches the freedom to speak about politics from the pulpit because the order directs the Treasury Department to “not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective…” This executive order doesn’t change the tax code but does direct the IRS to relax enforcement of the ban on political speech and activity for churches. However, pastors should proceed with caution. There is still confusion on what this decree actually allows churches and pastors to say and do behind the pulpit.   

Before jumping on the bandwagon to promote one candidate over another, be sure the leadership of the church, including the board of directors, supports your decision because they will also be accountable for the results or consequences of these actions.

Action Steps
While I promote caution when it comes to politics and the pulpit, I am not suggesting that the church ignore injustice or remain silent on the social and moral issues facing its community. The church must be the voice of biblical truth and may need to address public policy issues affecting their community.

No matter what side you are on at election time, there are 3 things I encourage you to do:

  1. Exercise your civic right and vote.
  2. Pray for our elected leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
  3. Encourage others to do the same.

See you at the polls on November 6!