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Pulpit Freedom Sunday

September 24, 2010

According to CBN, this Sunday is being declared by over 100 pastors as “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” If you don’t know what that means, here’s a ridiculously short explanation:

Churches don’t have to pay taxes because, in theory, they perform a public service. Because the government does not tax religion, it has no authority in the day-to-day religious operation. Also, it means that religion cannot have a say-so in the day-to-day government operation (i.e. campaigning or endorsing one candidate over another). Many pastors feel this violates their right to free speech, and are staging “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” to express their political viewpoints, despite the risk of losing their tax exempt status.

There are lots of issues and viewpoints here. Most people agree that if a government agency is paying you to do something, you should be held accountable by someone to make sure that you are doing the agreed upon task. Wouldn’t it make sense to require the same of a tax exempt organization? I am willing to go out on a limb and say that there are many more churches that receive tax-free status than there are churches who actually venture out into the community to serve the common good. If the reason they are exempt is because they are serving the broader community, shouldn’t community service be a requirement?

The primary issue is whether or not churches and pastors should involve themselves in politics at all. Personally, I don’t even mention politics with people at church because as a pastor, people attribute a certain authority to what I say (whether it is deserved or not). I would not dare to use that authority to imply that God endorses one party or one candidate over another. I believe that there is too much gray in the world to proclaim from the pulpit that black is better than white, or vice versa. Of course, all of this is my preference, and there are thousands and thousands of more experienced ministers that would likely disagree with me on every point.

Bottom line, I like having tax exempt status as a church. However, I think we should earn it- after all, don’t most conservatives consider handouts unAmerican and socialistic? I also don’t mind a pastor who wants to endorse a candidate or party (although I think it’s a misuse of authority). However, I would hope that if he wants to get involved with the political process, then he wouldn’t be upset if the government wanted to be involved in his process- or at least revoke his tax free status.

Like everyone else in the country, pastors actually do have the right to free speech. Also like everyone else in the country, though, some speech has consequences. May we all realize that free speech isn’t synonymous with “consequence-free speech.”

I’d actually love to get a lot of feedback on this one. If you are a pastor, do you feel like your church deserves tax-exempt status? Why or why not? If you are a normal church-goer, how do you feel about your pastor weighing in on political issues and elections?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 24, 2010 12:48 pm

    For me, this is one of the clearest intersections of American and Christianity. So just a few thoughts:

    I think that this stunt, and that is exactly what it is, demonstrates that in the church’s passion for politics we still don’t “get the point” of our own faith. We are here to set up an alternative kingdom, not join the current one. The kingdom of god cannot and will never be established through government/empire. Even if we all stopped voting and they banned christianity (not that those are connected) it wouldn’t hurt my faith, rather I think it would strengthen it. All that to say, I don’t see why pastors think that it is the role of the church to help shape government. It’s definitely not biblical. That’s not to say a case cant be made (see Bonhoeffer), but that case can’t be based on the constitution.

    Second, I think this move is done out of either a) ignorance or b)egotism. Any pastor worth his “political salt” would know that there is nothing stopping them from exercising their “freedom of speech” and promoting a candidate. They can even join the campaign trail if they want and make speeches for a candidate. They just can’t do it from behind the pulpit on Sunday morning and/or tell their congregation who to vote for. So, these idiots either don’t know the law or, most likely, are trying to gain attention for themselves. As I said I think this is nothing more than a stunt and if that is the case then they should have their status revoked because they are using their position to manipulate people around their own agenda, which leads me to my third point.

    I would assume that most pastors would consider their tax exempt status an inalienable right, and maybe thats true. I think politically speaking government should begin with the assumption that these groups start with the desire and intent to serve the community, something I think we would all agree is vital for the functioning of a health society. So in that sense I think maybe we could call tax exempt status for churches a “right” if we understand a right as a basic privilege (not in the modern sense of luxury) needed to function in society. But like your right to vote which can be lost when you’re convicted of a felony, I think that this right/privilege can and should be revoked when it is used the wrong way.

  2. Peter permalink
    September 24, 2010 3:45 pm

    Personally I think all religious institutions should have their tax-exempt status removed, since I agree a lot of them don’t use that status for good. I think they should instead apply for “Community Service Grants” if they need money to help with things they do for the good of the community. This would come with some provisos, namely it would have to be proven it was for the good of the community, and it would have to be non-discriminatory.

    There’s a lot less room for abuse, and while I personally don’t agree much with organised religions, I do agree they do hold some communities together very well, and it would be a shame for the already decreasing community spirit (at least in my country; England) to be decreased further. I just think less emphasis should be on religion and more on community.

  3. Chris Daniel permalink
    September 24, 2010 4:05 pm

    From IRS Publication 1828:

    Churches that meet the requirements of IRC section 501(c)(3) **are automatically considered tax exempt** and are not required to apply for and obtain recognition of tax-exempt status from the IRS.

    The rules later in the publication do prohibit explicit or implicit support or opposition of political candidates, but the rules seem to apply only to 501c3 organisations. A lot of churches aren’t 501c3, and therefore aren’t subject to these rules.

    So, before you report a church to the IRS, look them up to see whether they’re 501c3.

    I personally agree that the church has a moral obligation to stay out of the political process, but those are the rules …

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