Avoiding the elephant (or donkey) in the pulpit

Avoiding the elephant (or donkey) in the pulpit

How pastors can preach about the important matters of the day — without becoming too political or risking a church’s tax-exempt status.

This article first appeared in March 2016 at ChurchLawandTax.com, a website of Christianity Today. 

By Bobby Ross Jr. | For Christianity Today

Nationally, nearly 90 percent of pastors believe they should not endorse candidates for public office from the pulpit, according to the latest figures from Lifeway Research, an evangelical polling group based in Nashville, Tennessee.

That finding came in a 2012 survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors, said Ed Stetzer, Lifeway Research’s executive director. “Since Jesus is not coming back riding an elephant or a donkey, I’d suggest that pastors be known for Jesus and not politics,” Stetzer said. (Updated figures from September 2016)

Speaking up for Jesus, though, may take pastors into territory claimed by Caesar.

The expansion of government’s role in society has made preachers’ balancing act more difficult, said Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, who hosts “The Briefing,” a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

“To talk about any number of issues today is to involve politics in a way that would not have been true in generations past,” Mohler said. “Talking about healthcare or an adoption ministry or a ministry to orphans — none of that would have been overtly political even 30 or 40 years ago. But it is today because of the state’s increasing role in those areas.”

Every pastor must be careful to identify issues on which all Christians must stand together — and those on which legitimate differences of opinion could exist in terms of public policy, the seminary president said.

“Abortion and tax policy are both issues of Christian concern,” he said. “But the sanctity of human life is one that leads to a clear public policy, whereas concern for equity in tax policy could lead Christians of goodwill and common conviction to different policy conclusions.”

“The problem is defining what talking about politics from the pulpit really means,” said Mohler. “There’s no way that a pastor preaching the Word can avoid dealing with issues that will certainly relate to political realities and choices in the larger community.”

Dean Inserra doesn’t back down from preaching on political issues. Neither does Inserra, founding pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida, believe in partisanship from the pulpit.

How exactly does the 35-year-old pastor manage to address politics without becoming partisan?

“I’m unashamed and quick to speak on issues,” the Southern Baptist pastor said, suggesting that cultural concerns such as racial reconciliation, immigration, sexuality, and poverty “are spiritual issues before they’re political issues.”

“If we stay in the Word, two things are going to happen,” Inserra said. “One, we won’t be able to avoid speaking on political issues because they’re listed throughout Scripture. Two, we’re not going to be accused of being partisan or political because even our biggest critic will have to conclude. . . that we’re just teaching what the Bible says.”

Inserra serves a politically diverse congregation of about 1,000 people in Florida’s capital city.

His audience each Sunday is a mix of college students, young professionals, and state government employees — both Democrats and Republicans.

To avoid partisanship, Inserra said he focuses on the Bible—and tries to be consistent in how he applies the Scriptures, whether talking about abortion or Syrian refugees.

“To me, immigration and abortion can come out of the same breath because they’re both life issues,” said Inserra, who started City Church when he was 26. “Maybe two of the most vulnerable people in our society are, one, the unborn child, and two, the refugee.

“If we’re always finding ourselves perfectly siding with one party as a Christian,” he added, “we’re probably more in that party than we are Christian when it comes to our views.”’

As Matt Curry, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Waxahachie, Texas, sees it, the Gospel of Jesus Christ “is very political, and it ruffles feathers.” Christ himself was executed as an enemy of the state, Curry noted.

“However, the Gospel is not partisanly political,” the Presbyterian pastor said. “In other words, Jesus is not a Republican or Democrat, and there is no evidence to suggest he was ever concerned about who would be named the next emperor of Rome.”

In Curry’s theological tradition, a sermon starts with a particular text—not with an issue the pastor wants to address.

“Then the pastor interprets it with and for our community,” said Curry, whose 250-member congregation is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “Hopefully, we don’t ‘proof text’—that is, to say what [we] want to say anyway and then look for verses in the Bible to back up our personal opinions.

“I want to let the biblical text for that Sunday speak, interpreted by the Spirit’s instruction,” he added, “and let that, in conversation with my faith community, guide how I approach issues of the day. I pray that I am doing that.”

Curry recalled putting a sign in his yard supporting one of his congregation’s elders for the local school board. However, he made clear he was doing so as a private citizen—not in his clergy role. The Texas pastor said he couldn’t imagine ever endorsing a candidate—for any office—from the pulpit.

Curry fears, however, that Christians lose an opportunity to introduce seekers to Jesus when they take too stringent a stand. “Many people, I am afraid, are genuinely interested in learning more about Jesus Christ,” he said, “but they are encountering Christianity as a judgmental, defensive, snarling, fearful political movement. It’s turning them off to church and to religion, and I can understand why.”

For pastors across the nation, speaking boldly on spiritual matters frequently means touching on issues regarded as political. That task is made more challenging by Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rules prohibiting tax-exempt churches from endorsing candidates.

The Johnson Amendment—named for then-Texas Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson — was added to the IRS code in 1954. The amendment prohibits churches from intervening in election campaigns on behalf of candidates, said Corwin Smidt, a research fellow for the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “To do so risks the loss of the church’s tax-exempt status,” Smidt said. “Though the amendment was largely uncontroversial at its inception, it has become, in more recent years, somewhat more contentious.”

Specifically, the code states:

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.

Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances. For example, certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner.

On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.

Despite the code, clergy members enjoy the same rights as other citizens, Smidt said.

“Should they wish to do so, they are free to place yard signs in support of candidates on the lawns where they reside,” he said of pastors. “The issue is where and in what context they choose to make such expressions of support. What the amendment prohibits is clergy endorsing specific candidates or political parties from the pulpit. What is less clear is the expression of support or opposition to specific pieces of legislation from the pulpit.”

Americans, as a rule, believe in separation of church and state, said Smidt, author of Pastors and Public Life: The Changing Face of American Protestant Clergy (published in March 2016 from Oxford University Press). “That is different from the separation between religion and politics, but the two are intertwined,” he said. “In other words, you can never get religion out of politics. There’s no way of preventing someone who walks into the voting booth from voting on the basis of his or her religious beliefs or religious identity.”

And in general, Smidt said Americans don’t mind turn-out-the-vote efforts by churches—or even organizing transportation to take people to the polls. But he noted that the nation’s sentiment runs against the church becoming an instrument of a political candidate or party.

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative Christian legal organization based in Scottsdale, Arizona, deems the code unconstitutional and argues that the IRS has no business censoring pastors’ sermons.

Since 2008, more than 4,000 pastors have participated in the ADF’s Pulpit Freedom Sunday (typically held the first weekend in October) and called on the IRS to end the sermon restrictions.

“Pastors should not be threatened with financial penalties or loss of a tax status simply for applying biblical teachings to all areas of life, including candidates and elections,” ADF legal counsel Christiana Holcomb said.

Holcomb claims that “over 60 years of IRS intimidation, coupled with misinformation by activist groups” have caused pastors to engage in widespread self-censorship. “Pastors avoid addressing any topic that could remotely be deemed ‘political,’” she said, “and in doing so, shy away from speech that is permissible even under current IRS guidelines.”

Fear of government intervention aside, it is rare for a church to face the loss of exemption or a financial penalty for what its pastor preaching from the pulpit, though the IRS did take that step for the first time in 1999 when it revoked a church’s tax-exempt status due to involvement in a political campaign.

“In practice, the IRS is very wary of involving itself in policing political activities of churches, especially in light of the public outcry against the IRS’s alleged targeting of conservative groups in the 2012 presidential campaign,” said Paul L. Caron, a law professor and tax policy expert at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. “So pastors have a very wide berth in what they can say.”

At his Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation, an hour southwest of Chicago, Hans Fiene is the pastor. The general message he gives at his River of Life Lutheran Church in Channahon, Illinois, about politics is this: “Christians must agree that we have an obligation to feed the poor, care for the sick, and love our neighbor according to his needs.

“But because the Bible doesn’t give us a specific policy for manifesting this love, we can disagree on what we think the best policy might be,” added Fiene, whose church averages Sunday attendance of 70 to 80. “You can’t oppose welfare, for example, because you don’t want to help the poor, but you can oppose it if you think it’s harmful to the poor and that there’s a better way to serve them.

“So we can disagree on tax rates, foreign policy and war, immigration, trade, gun control, labor unions, and a host of other issues as long as we agree on the command to love our neighbor,” he continued. “Where we can’t disagree, however, is on issues where one policy would be a clear violation of God’s word and would harm our neighbor, two examples being legalized abortion and gay marriage.”

On the other hand, God gives Americans the right to vote and choose their leaders, said Fiene. “He will therefore judge us for electing leaders who oppose his will,” Fiene said. “So if candidates support a policy or piece of legislation that is unquestionably opposed to the Word of God . . . it’s important for Christians to know that they will be held accountable if they give their support to such candidates.”