Church Politicking Is Uncivil Disobedience: Annie Laurie Gaylor & Dan Barker

Statement by Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor

A well-heeled extremist legal outfit called on priests and pastors throughout the nation to defy IRS regulations by using their tax-exempt pulpits on Sunday, Sept. 28, to endorse candidates in the presidential race.

The unethical so-called Pulpit Initiative was advanced by the troublemaking Alliance Defense Fund. The Fund seems to be advocating no less than organized crime — uncivil disobedience. The Wall Street Journal had reported some 30 ministers had volunteered to participate. Rev. Jody Hice, of Bethlehem First Baptist Church in Bethlehem, Ga., endorsed Sen. John McCain: “ As a pastor, I have the right to speak biblical truth without being punished for it. ” (Just where in the bible can we find that reference to John McCain?)

So far, according to press accounts, it appears at least four other pastors joined Hice in endorsing McCain from the pulpit: Pastor Paul Blair, of Fairview Baptist Church, Fairview, Okla.; Pastor Gus Booth, of Warroad Community Church, Warroad, Minn., (who said, “ We need to vote for the most righteous of candidates . . . The most righteous is John McCain ” ); Rev. Francis Pultro, Calvary Chapel, Philadelphia; and Pastor Luke Emrich, of New Life Church, West Bend, Wis. Additionally, Rev. Wiley Drake, of First Southern Baptist Church, Buena Park, Calif., said from the pulpit, “ there is no way a Christian can vote for Barack Hussein Obama. ”

The purpose of the mass Sunday defiance was to force a test case to exempt churches and religious groups from the IRS rules prohibiting tax-exempt charities from engaging in partisanship and politics.

Churches struck a deal with government, and now some of them want to break their promise.

Why shouldn’t ministers politick from the pulpit? Because churches don’t pay taxes. Tax exemption is granted with the understanding that tax-exempt entities are limiting their activities to religious, charitable or educational endeavors. Exempt entities are in essence subsidized by taxpayers, who (not to belabor the obvious) pay more so tax-exempt groups don’t have to pay property tax, sales tax in many states, and so on. If a house on your block goes off the tax rolls because it is claimed as a church rectory, you and your neighbors are soon going to be paying higher taxes to make up the difference. Ironically, churches often get better government services, such as free snow removal, police protection and traffic control, than paying businesses.

In this gentleperson’s agreement, it is understood the charity will not take advantage of its privileged status to interfere with partisan politics. It is also the law that tax-exempt entities must be scrupulous in not misusing their tax-exempt status to influence the outcome of political elections.

(Unfortunately, IRS regulations currently permit churches free reign to influence congregations over the outcome of controversial referenda. Referenda, in which churches chime in, notably include the campaign to amend state constitutions to prohibit same-sex marriage — a campaign which is exclusively promoted by churches and religious groups. Antigay and antiabortion initiatives are often placed on election-year ballots by church groups and their legislative champions in a bald attempt to get out the religious-right vote for Congressional and presidential elections. The lack of regulation of church speech on referenda has already caused untold mischief to civil rights. The “ hands-off ” policy by the IRS over referenda has handed the religious right a tool to wield so it can mold public policy to its own ends via Sunday morning instructions.)

If the IRS policy prohibiting church politicking were revoked, churches would possess an unfair advantage to influence the outcome of elections, and to influence politicians seeking their approval (and their congregations’ votes). It would create a shadow government of influential churches and church leaders to whom politicians would kowtow.

Look what has happened in this election year even with the intact IRS prohibition against church politicking! Candidates are being given religious tests for public office, are wearing religion on their sleeves and are showing up for Q&A at nationally televised “ forums ” in megachurches. Imagine what would happen if pastors and priests could openly use their pulpits to endorse? They would not limit their “ men of God ” standing to intimidate parishioners ( “ God told me to tell you he wants you to vote for So&So ” ), but would be exhorting voters 24/7 over their tax-exempt airwaves, in their tax-exempt megachurches, on their tax-exempt lawns with church marquees, and in other tax-exempt forms of religious mass media.

Donors may currently give money to churches with no caps, no accountability. Churches are not required to account for their finances or activities to the government. Other exempt groups must file detailed annual 990 Forms with the IRS, which are made available to the public, accounting for every penny. We have already had a chilling lesson in the harm that can occur from such lack of church accountability. Look at Rev. Jim Jones (photographed with every conceivable politician of his day), who had no trouble smuggling a cache of weapons, hundreds of foster children and untold millions out of the United States. Had Rev. Jones been accountable to the government for what his church was doing with its money, the 1978 Jonestown massacre might have been averted.

Churches inevitably would employ tax-exempt donations for political ends. Political churches emboldened by such a development would make the perfect cover for every form of political intrigue, payola and money laundering. Church and state would each be deeply corrupted.

If a church wants to engage in politics, the answer is obvious. Just play by the rules and give up tax exemption.

The writers are co-presidents of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.


Freedom From Religion Foundation