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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Ask the Matriarch - Preachers, Pulpits, and Politics

With election season just getting hotter all the time, the information we are inundated with about candidates just gets more and more confusing! As news emerges that the IRS is investigating the very church that Obama is a member of (its national body!), one ring member wonders:

Hi Wise Ones, I know you're not lawyers, but can you clarify what is allowed in political campaigning, if you are a parish pastor? And, do you have any stories or advice about things going well or badly that might help us out? Thanks!

Well, our matriarchs aren't lawyers and didn't have much to say on it, but a colleague of Ann's in the Episcopal Church is rector of a church in California that had its own run-in with the IRS as a result of a sermon that a priest gave a few days before the 2004 election, so she asked around a bit and got some information and some links:

As far as the IRS is concerned, you may not endorse candidates from the pulpit or you will lose your 501c3 status. This is your not-for-profit status which allows members to deduct their gifts from their taxes and your church to have tax-free status for its building.

You may discuss issues and give your opinion.

Personally, I don't preach on political issues except as they pertain to the Gospel or other readings. I prefer to hold forums with a variety of speakers. I will tell people in the church about my party affiliation if they ask but not who I vote for. I want people to respond out of their beliefs, not mine. I do encourage activism and voting and writing one's leaders. That can make a huge difference. The Episcopal Church has a Washington Office that makes it easy to contact our legislators.

Ann points us to the Interfaith Alliance, which publishes a guide for candidates and religious leaders:

The guide for religious leaders offers legal and ethical counsel on how religious leaders, congregations and religious institutions may appropriately participate in the electoral process. The guide for political candidates describes proper and improper ways to incorporate religious language and references into campaigns.

It's available here.

PBS's News and Religion Weekly did a piece on it in 2006, centered around a nondenominational megachurch in Ohio that garnered some attention for helping swing results in that state for President Bush. You can read it here.

If any of you have denomination-specific resources you'd like to share, or have had colleagues affected by that at-times hair's-breadth thread that divides religion and politics, please do so in the comments. In an election season where the choices are complex and nuanced (for a wonderful change), this may well prove to be very challenging!


  1. I remember hearing about Ann's church's run in with the IRS. I found it ironic considering the sermon critiqued both candidates that they had a problem. There were a lot of preachers out there publicly preaching from the pulpit that President Bush was the only possible Christian vote, i.e. the mega church in Ohio, that didn't have run ins with the IRS.

    I haven't heard about the IRS investigating the UCC to which Sen. Obama belongs. However, it makes me wonder if someone high up in either the RNC or the White House is scared Sen. Obama might win. Stranger things have happened in American Politics then the IRS going after a candidates church to discredit the candidate, it is sad to say.

  2. I am not a lawyer but I did see the presentation that the Rev. Ed Bacon of the Episcopal Church that was in trouble with the IRS--a charge that has been dropped made to the American Bar Association. (go to and check the archives)

    I have always understood that part of the pastor's job was to be a commentator on the public scene--social or political. It is part of the role of prophet that we all carry as a part of ordination.

    At the same time I try to hold myself clearly as non-partisan never mentioning the candidates. I try to hold up principles that go with our Christian vocation.

    It has never made me popular with the parish because I usually point fingers at the failure of both parties. But I believe it is important to do so.

    Some parishes in larger cities take on a particular view--they are either conservative or liberal. It is part of the character of that worshipping body. And we need lively parishes like that on both sides of the aisle. But I have real problems with denominations or even individual churches that espouse a single candidate with the pastor recommending a specific candidate. I used to hear RC priests doing this some years ago supporting single issue candidates. I don't know of other churches who use their sermons in bully pulpits. But I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't others. I think that this goes beyond the pariticulars that the IRS is trying to guard against. But at the same time, I do not know of the IRS going after a conservative church because they supported a specific candidate.

  3. I guess this makes Pastor Hagee's church in San Antonio up for an IRS lookin' at! He just endorsed McCain!

  4. I definitely think that pastors should not endorse candidates. I think muthah+'s comments are the closest to what our role, ideally, ought to be. I think we do have to speak out on the issues of the day. Not that it's easy to do.

    And I definitely think Pastor Hagee should be investigated. and his 501(c)3 should be revoked.

  5. There is a church down the street from me that has "Obama 08" on their church sign! I'm thinking I should call them and tell them that they are jeopardizing their tax exempt status. What would the layperson's responsibility be here?

  6. This is all very interesting...there is a little thread at my blog about the UCC issue. Let me know your thoughts.

    muthah+, I agree with you entirely. And we seem to have painted ourselves into bit of a corner in the way that we depend upon the government's good graces for a financial leg up. I dunno. I go back and forth on that one.

  7. No 501(c)(3) organization may endorse or campaign for a political candidate and retain their tax exempt status. A pastor, as a private individual, may endorse a candidate, but not in a way that would indicate that the position is one of his/her organization.

    The IRS has published the following which may be helpful,,id=154712,00.html

    (Sorry, for some reason my attempts to put links never seem to work.)

    Now, IMHO, the IRS has been engaged in selective enforcement of these provisions. In the 2004 elections a number of churches posted signs on their lawn that simply read "W". Their ingenuous argument was that it really wasn't a campaign sign for the President.

    I personally do not publicly display my political choices. My congregation knows that I am left of center (way left), but I don't want my political beliefs to color my relationship with parishioners. (Now, the day one parishioner showed up with five, count them, five George Bush buttons on her jacket did tax my patience. But, I knew she was doing it to get a rise out of me.)

  8. There seems to be this idea in the American populace and especially in my denomination that if my political views are different than someone's then I am somehow alienated from them. Pastor's are supposed to be alienated from their perishioners so our political view points should remain secret.

    I don't see how this idea makes sense. Just because my party affiliation is different from someone else does not mean I view them as lest than human or less deserving of God's grace, love, and care. If someone views me as less then human because of my party affiliation, then that is a teachable moment. I do not see how my party affiliation limits my ability to pastorally care for my congregation. I think this idea is a mechanism of the powers that be to keep us divided to avoid us cooperating.


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