As the presidential race continues, the focus now turns to Michigan. Evangelicals are expected to play an influential role in this and other upcoming primaries. In Iowa, some pastors received anonymous letters saying they should not preach on religious or political issues because they might land in the “slammer.” Such threats are baseless, but they do illustrate the increasing role that pastors play in politics and the attempts by some to silence them.
History does not support the baseless threats hurled against pastors and churches. Since 1934, when the lobbying restriction was added to the Internal Revenue Code (“IRC”), not one church has ever lost its tax-exempt status. Since 1954, when the political endorsement/opposition prohibition was added, only one church has ever lost its IRS letter ruling, but even that church did not lose its tax-exempt status. That case involved the Church at Pierce Creek in New York, which placed full-page ads in USA Today and the Washington Times opposing then-Governor Bill Clinton for President. The ads were sponsored by the Church and donations were solicited. The IRS revoked the Church’s letter ruling, but not its tax-exempt status. The Church sued, and the court ruled that churches are tax exempt without an IRS letter ruling. The Court noted that “because of the unique treatment churches receive under the Internal Revenue Code, the impact of the revocation is likely to be more symbolic than substantial.” Not even this Church lost its tax-exempt status, and not one donor was affected by this incident.
While churches may not endorse or oppose candidates for elective office, pastors can preach on biblical and moral issues, such as traditional marriage and abortion, can urge the congregation to register and vote, can overview the positions of the candidates, and may personally endorse candidates. Churches may distribute nonpartisan voter guides, register voters, provide transportation to the polls, hold candidate forums, and introduce visiting candidates.
Churches may promote and endorse pending legislation or marriage amendments or initiatives. The only limitation is that the churches not devote more than a substantial part of their overall activity to lobbying. No church has every lost its tax exemption for engaging in too much lobbying.
Pastors should throw away the muzzles that some wish to impose on them and replace them with megaphones. It was sermons of pastors that fueled the American Revolution. America needs her pastors to once again speak up and address the religious and moral issues of the day. It is far more likely to be struck by lightening twice than for churches to lose their tax-exempt status over political issues.