Thomas McKenzie
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Pastors, Politics, and the 501c3

Yesterday, 33 pastors in the Midwest intentionally violated IRS regulations. They each endorsed, by name, a candidate for public office from the pulpit as part of their normal Sunday services. Today, those pastors are mailing copies of their sermons to the IRS.

As Bob Smietana reports in today's Tennessean article: Under IRS regulations, nonprofits are "absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or opposition to) any candidate for public office."

Here is the way this works. If you want to start a church, you may apply for tax exempt status. You incorporate a "501c3;" that is, a non-profit, tax-exempt organization. I participated in just such an incorporation about 4 years ago. I found out it is fairly easy to do, if you are starting a church. Other non-profits need more work and more documentation. But for a few hours work and a few hundred dollars, a small group of people can start a 501c3 church.

When you do this, you are making an agreement with the federal government. They are agreeing not to tax you. In fact, people can give you money and claim these donations on their tax returns. So, ultimately, this status costs the government money in uncollected income. In return, you agree to live by their rules. These include not officially endorsing a particular political candidate.

There is a lot of gray area in these rules. For instance, a pastor could start telling everyone in his congregation: "speaking to you as a friend and not as your pastor, I think you should vote for X" as long as she was not up in the pulpit or speaking at a church meeting. Church groups can also support or oppose particular pieces of legislation. They can even provide "voter's guides," which are often not-so-subtle endorsements that highlight what a candidate supposedly believes about specific hot-button issues.

From what I understand, the reason these 33 pastors violated their 501c3 rules was this: they want to take a stand for freedom of religion. They don't want the government to control what they can and can not say from the pulpit.

As a pastor myself, I sympathize. I don't want the federal government to control what I say from the pulpit. And guess what? They don't.

First of all, no church has to be a 501c3 organization. This is an agreement that a church can choose to make. It would be a huge pain if the government got rid of the 501c3 status for churches. However, it would not be the same thing as making church illegal. It would be a tremendous financial burden on an institution that (I argue) is performing a legitimately positive secular function.

Second, I can not imagine a circumstance in which one candidate for public office is so wonderful that I could legitimately say that the Gospel mandates his or her election. For that is what an endorsement of a candidate must be. When I preach, I am enjoined by my ordination to preach only that which comes from the Word of God, and that which proclaims the Good News of Jesus Christ. What would it take to convince me that one candidate is Jesus' choice for public office? I can not imagine.

I have personal opinions about politics. At this point, I know whom I'm going to vote for in the Presidential election. And I have come to that conclusion based in large part on my understanding of my faith and the priorities of political leadership I see in the Bible. However, I also know that both candidates have strikes against them in this department. But I honestly do not believe that one of these two candidates can be shown by scripture to be God's Anointed for this moment.

I believe that Church must be involved in society, and that sometimes means being involved in politics. However, not in the politics of Democrats vs. Republicans. Neither party is God's party, neither has the interests of the Gospel at heart. Rather, we must lend our voice to the political process in order to advocate for the Gospel's perspective on society.

For instance, the Church must advocate for the poor. The Church must advocate for a Culture of Life and against policies such as abortion, the death penalty, and unjust war.

Often in the midst of these issues, there are not clear political answers. For instance, some Christians would argue that the best way to help the poor is through social programs. Others would argue that the best way to help them is to cut taxes on small businesses and therefore encourage businesses to hire the unemployed. The Church must remain, therefore, a humble participant in these conversations.

Finally, I don't advocate for a particular political party in my church because I want my congregation to be a house of prayer for all people. When I park my car in our lot during the political season, I see bumper stickers from all over the political spectrum. I want to be in a church with Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and Greens; Conservatives, Liberals, and Moderates. More importantly, I want to be in a church where we see these labels as the New Testament sees the Law: good tools, sometimes helpful guides, but not things essential to our faith.

It is my duty as a citizen of America to vote. And it is my duty as a citizen of Heaven to advance God's Kingdom. My vote should spring from my discipleship, but it can not be the most important way I advance God's Kingdom. In fact, it is only one of a thousand ways I will participate in the Reign of Christ on the first Tuesday in November.

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