May 2016 – AFA Journal: How can pastors and church leaders address civic, moral, and political issues and still stay within the legal guidelines that qualify a church as a tax-exempt organization?
Abraham Hamilton: At this point in America’s history, pastors face challenges both socially and legally. Socially, because biblical authenticity is not as in vogue as it once was, and the cost of bold preaching could be a reduction in the size of their congregations.
Legally, because there are groups whose implicit or explicit purpose is to silence Christians. They imply a threat to a church’s tax-exempt status by claiming that engagement in the civic arena breaches the wall that they claim separates church and state.
Sadly, most pastors don’t realize that such a doctrine is not part of the U.S. Constitution. Rather, those words – “the wall of separation of church and state” – were taken from a personal letter written by Thomas Jefferson to a church group in Danbury, Connecticut. Prior to the mid-20th century, those words were never used to silence Christians. And, prior to the 19th century, the phrase was never quoted without referring to the full historical context of Jefferson’s letter. However in our day, the meaning has been flipped on its head with the intent of keeping Christians out of the public arena.
AFAJ: What is the proper role of churches in dealing with civic issues?
AH: In my opinion, a scriptural approach begins with a full-breasted commitment to the Great Commission found at the end of Matthew 28 and Mark 16. Although the Greek word in those passages for the English word world refers to geographic terrain, it also includes the understanding of demographic terrain, implying a Christian presence in all the world’s systems and cultures. Along with our presence, we bring a biblical worldview.
Furthermore, here in America we are blessed with a representative form of government. When we “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” we must understand that we are Caesar. We are a government “of the people, for the people and by the people.” Therefore, our elected officials are duty bound to re-present our views on issues.
We also look to God’s foreknowledge in determining the places and times we live, as Acts 17:26 teaches. For example, God saw a time in 2016 when American Christians would need to be involved in the election process. So, “for the joy set before Him, He endured the cross” that He might have the church ready for this time. We realize that we are not here by accident. Rather, we are here on assignment to be light in darkness. We have an obligation to declare, “This is the way to walk. Walk thee therein.”
AFAJ: So in making that declaration, what is a pastor free to say from his pulpit, assuming he wants to protect the tax-exempt status of his local church?
AH: A pastor is free to preach the entirety of the Word of God. I say it that way for this reason: You can never run afoul of your tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status by preaching and teaching that which is consistent with the values, the worldview, and the mission of the church. After all, that is the purpose for which the church was granted a tax-exempt status in the first place.
The Bible says God has given us in His Word all things that pertain to life and godliness. Civic engagement is a part of life. There are specific scriptures that apply to civic engagement. So, a pastor can have no fear as he preaches the full counsel of God’s Word.
Here’s an example: During an election season, pastors can offer a comparison between the voting record of candidates and the teaching of the Scripture. What does the Word of God say about human sexuality? What does the Word of God say about the origin of life? These matters can be compared and contrasted to the particular candidates’ positions in these and other issues.
As shepherds of their flocks, pastors have a responsibility from God to inform the sheep about the positions of the ones asking for their votes. Lay out the candidates’ positions on the areas that are consistent with or in conflict with the Scripture.
In that case, the pastor is not comparing one candidate to the next; he is comparing what the Bible says and what his church believes to the record and words of individual candidates. And that is perfectly fair and legal.
In addition, it is also historical. Fear of civic engagement in the pulpits of America is a modern phenomenon. In fact, in the past, pastors were expected to preach election sermons to guide the flock concerning their duty before the Lord. (See below.)
AFAJ: Are we seeing the abdication of that duty today in America?
AH: I like to say it like this: Darkness is not an affirmative force. It is passive and has no power. It simply reoccupies the space that light vacates. Here in America in 2016, we are living in a time when spiritual darkness is coming to occupy the space where God’s light has been rejected.
AFAJ: How can that light be restored to its rightful place in our culture?
AH: We have inherited a glorious system of government in America, one that did not come from the minds of men alone. However, unless God’s people carry that light into the civic arena, the nation will continue to grow darker.
1 Churches and other 501(c)(3) organizations may support or oppose legislation so long as such activity comprises an insubstantial part of the overall operation. 501(c)(4) organizations may support or oppose legislation without any limitations.
2 A church or any other 501(c)(3) organization may without limitation support or oppose legislation that directly affects the organizational structure and operation. For example, a church may without limitation oppose legislation attempting to repeal the tax-exempt status of the church.
3 The IRS has held that a pastor’s personal involvement in political activities is not necessarily prohibited campaign intervention.
A church may:
▶ Address biblical instruction pertaining to moral and cultural issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, poverty, the environment, etc.
▶ Preach sermons on moral and social issues and civic involvement.
▶ Encourage members to voice their opinions in favor of or in opposition to certain legislation.1
▶ Support or oppose other political appointments of non-elected officials.
▶ Support or oppose judicial, department, or cabinet appointments.
▶ Educate on political process and political/social/legislative issues.
▶ Allow use of church facilities by political candidates (as long as all other candidates are allowed or invited).
▶ Support or oppose legislation unrelated to the church organization.1
▶ Support petition drives supporting or opposing legislation.
▶ Support or oppose legislation that directly relates to the organization.2
▶ Engage in voter registration activities that avoid promoting any one candidate or particular political party.
▶ Distribute educational materials to voters (such as this party platform comparison resource), but only those that are nonpartisan and cover a wide range of issues.
▶ Conduct candidate or issues forums where each duly qualified candidate is invited and provided an equal opportunity to address attendees.
A church may NOT:
▶ Endorse or oppose political candidates.3
▶ Contribute to political action committees.3
▶ Publish church bulletin editorial where the pastor or staff member endorses or opposes a candidate.
▶ Campaign or fundraise for candidates.3
▶ Grant use of its name to support a political candidate .3
▶ Support or oppose judicial candidate.3
▶ Make contributions to political candidates.3
▶ Make in-kind and independent expenditures for or against political candidates.3
▶ Use church funds or services (such as mailing lists or office equipment) to contribute directly to candidates or political committees.
▶ Use church funds to pay fees for political events.
▶ Permit the distribution of material on church premises that favors any one candidate or political party or is limited in scope.
▶ Allow candidates to solicit funds while speaking in a church.
The list above is a general guideline for tax-exempt churches and organizations based on IRS law. It is not a substitute for legal advice, and the IRS ultimately interprets the legality of political involvement. The list was adapted from resources provided by American Center for Law & Justice and Liberty Counsel.
Abraham Hamilton III is public policy analyst at AFA. He holds a Juris Doctor degree from Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. Abe is also a father and Bible teacher. His ministerial focus includes marriage, family, apologetics, biblical worldview training, discipleship, and preaching.