On Sunday Oct. 7, about 1,500 pastors of various faiths engaged in an organized act of civil disobedience: they endorsed political candidates from the pulpit, and many will continue to do so until election day. That may not sound like a crime, but the pastors were violating the U.S. tax code, which prohibits churches and other non-profits from engaging in electoral politics.
“Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” organized by a group called Alliance Defending Freedom, has been an annual event since 2008. The participants are trying to bait the IRS into coming after them so they can mount a legal challenge to the politics ban. So far, no luck, though they show no signs of quitting.
Many of the participants are from conservative evangelical churches, and one critic — Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Church and State — has argued that the Pulpit Freedom clergy “want to elect Mitt Romney.” It is hard to know how all of the actual endorsements broke down, but Lynn’s take may not be completely off.
Indiana pastor Ron Johnson told his congregation that for people who believe in the Bible voting against President Barack Obama is a “no-brainer.” Jim Garlow told Skyline Church, a San Diego megachurch, that he himself planned to vote for Romney though he did not make a formal endorsement. (Some pastors avoided the presidential race altogether; Mark Harris of the First Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. only endorsed a Republican candidate for state Supreme Court.)
The impact this will have on the election this year, though interesting, is not really the point. Pulpit Freedom Sunday is trying to completely rewrite the rules so that in future elections, churches around the country will be free to actively politick. If the full force of the nation’s religious institutions is unleashed, it could have a powerful effect on future elections.
The Alliance Defending Freedom insists that pastors have a right to preach “biblical Truth about candidates and elections from their pulpits” — and that “the future of religious freedom” depends on it. Supporters of the movement argue that the IRS policy is an infringement on religious liberty, and that churches are being discriminated against.
But these complaints are unpersuasive. What they are objecting to is really a matter of tax policy — and it is a policy that is broadly applied. The government does not want to subsidize political activity — and making an activity tax deductible is effectively a government subsidy. When individuals give money to political campaigns, IRS rules make clear that they cannot deduct the expense. It is not just churches whose hands are tied: any charity that accepts tax-deductible donations is barred from engaging in political activity.
There are actually very good reasons for the IRS’s rule. The first is simple enough: tax deductibility is expensive. If politics done through churches can be funded with tax-deductible contributions, more political activity will be done through churches — and the government will collect less in taxes. That will end up costing taxpayers a lot.
Then there is the matter of fairness — and it cuts against the churches. If a group of friends get together to engage in politics, they cannot deduct the money they spend to support a candidate. It is not clear why a group of people who get together to pray should be able to do their political activity with tax-deductible money.
There is also a strong case — and many religious people make it — that the IRS rules help religion. The wall of separation between church and state protects religion from entanglement with the state as much as it protects the state from entanglement with religion. If religious institutions are freed up to jump into partisan politics, many of them likely will — and they will taint themselves in the process. Instead of being an oasis of apolitical calm in an increasingly bitterly divided nation, they will become soldiers in the political wars.
The leaders of Pulpit Freedom Sunday are styling themselves as populist crusaders facing off against IRS bureaucrats — the silent majority rising up. But it is not clear that they are the majority at all. Pew has been polling Americans for years about whether they want churches to express their views on politics. In 1996, 54% of Americans said they did compared to 43% who did not. In recent years, opinion has flipped. Today, 54% say churches should stay out of politics while just 40% say they should express their views.
The United States may be a religious nation. But it is also a nation with a strong commitment to separation of church and state. The organizers of Pulpit Freedom Sunday seem not to realize that the majority of Americans want to keep faith and politics separate.