The 2012 U.S. presidential election season is getting vicious, and the nation recognizes that there is a great deal riding on this election. Despite the constant bantering and outright verbal attacks (between friends on Twitter and Facebook), the widespread interest is frankly much better for American than listless hopelessness. People care.
As it does on a regular basis, Americans United for Separation of Church and State is getting after churches for caring too much. Americans United has sent out a letter warning churches not to engage in politicking because, “tax law prohibits 501(c)(3) groups from supporting or opposing candidates.” The letter even warns about voter guides that are too one-sided in how they address the issues.
Most churches would like to keep their 501(c)(3) status and continue to offer tax deductions for tithes and offerings. They therefore tread very carefully during election time. Some pastors, however, are weary of being muzzled. These believe the church has a responsibility to address political issues, just as men of God have done throughout history, and they want to fight for their First Amendment right of free speech in their churches. These pastors will be speaking out very clearly about political matters and will offer their views on specific candidates on October 7, which has been dubbed Pulpit Freedom Sunday. If lawsuits ensue, these pastors hope that they will result in a Supreme Court decision to overturn the Johnson Amendment, the 1954 amendment to the tax code forbidding politicking in churches.
In an analysis of the history behind the Johnson Amendment, James D. Davidson of Purdue University said in 1998, “The ban on electioneering has nothing to do with the First Amendment or Jeffersonian principles of separation of church and state. The First Amendment speaks of religious freedom; it says nothing that would preclude churches from aligning themselves with or against candidates for political office…” Davidson argues that it was then-Senator Lyndon Johnson’s push against McCarthyism and effort to hold Democratic control over the Senate that motivated the amendment in 1954.
Even now, though, there’s no law that says churches cannot offer a microphone to political causes. They may right now, under current law, preach for or against candidates all they want. Churches and charities just may not keep their 501(c)(3) tax exempt status if they engage in overt campaigning.
What Should Churches Do?
Jesus told his disciples, “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.”(Matthew 5:14) That applies first and foremost to the Spirit of God in us, shining out in our everyday lives. Living for Jesus Christ and putting him first in our lives is the most vital thing we can do, whatever our political positions.
Because the government of the United States is in the hands of the people, though, Americans are in a greater position to move things politically than were the people of First Century Rome. We Americans have a responsibility to oversee our representatives, to hold them accountable, and to make our voices heard. Individual Americas, whatever their religious beliefs, are not only free but should speak out to make sure that our local and federal public servants are doing their jobs well.
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