DALLAS—Churches engaged in partisan politics risk losing not only their tax-exempt status, but also their credibility, several experts in church-state relations agree.
Churches and religious organizations—like other IRS 501(c) (3) nonprofit organizations—are free to speak out on social, moral and ethical issues. But they cannot support or oppose candidates for office without running the risk of losing their tax-exemption.
Some lawmakers—spurred on by the Religious Right—have tried to change the law to allow overt political endorsements in places of worship. But the Baptist Joint Committee in Washington, D.C., consistently has opposed any attempts to change the rules for churches—particularly efforts to allow ministers to endorse candidates from the pulpit without threatening churches' tax-exempt status.
“Allowing religious organizations to engage in electioneering activities—while continuing to prohibit secular nonprofits from doing so—would be fundamentally unfair,” a public issues guide published by the Baptist Joint Committee's Religious Liberty Council states.
Beyond the issue of fairness, the Baptist agency also notes the negative impact church-based partisan politics can have on congregations.
“It would invite a highly divisive element into virtually every congregation, tend to balkanize congregations into Democratic and Republican congregations, and engender a corrosive mix of religion and politics that would turn pulpit prophets into puppets of politicians,” the group's issues guide warns.
Derek Davis, a church-state attorney and dean of the College of Humanities and the Graduate School at the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor in Belton, believes restrictions on partisan political activity by churches benefit faith communities because they “force the American religious community to remain focused on spiritual rather than political matters.”
In effect, the restrictions help prevent churches from “becoming fickle—and in some cases, irrelevant—institutions,” Davis said. “The restrictions represent yet another recognition that separating of church and state is good for both church and state.”
Candidates rise and fall, but churches and their mission remain. So, when churches associate too closely with political parties or personalities, they undercut their lasting impact, he stressed.
“Politics is all about the temporal; churches and other houses of worship should focus on the permanent, the values and principles that are eternal, the truths that are lasting and affect all of us at all times and in all places,” said Davis, former director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Waco.
The ups and downs of political fortune create “a roller-coaster existence” that undermines churches' health, he stressed.
“By riding the waves of a particular political party or candidate, churches are setting themselves up for disappointment and failure. They might enjoy success for a season, but political fortunes change, and they are sure to be on the losing side of things at least some of the time,” he said.
Suzii Paynter, director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas Christian Life Commission, likewise stressed the risks churches run when they become too closely linked to a political party or candidate.
“The church can jeopardize its witness if it finds itself used for political ends by a political group, even a group with a very sympathetic cause,” Paynter said. “The church has a long-term interest in Christian citizenship, while many groups want the church's immediate endorsement for the expedient purpose of one election or campaign.”
Single-issue groups particularly pose a danger for churches, she noted.
“There are many organizations that want the blessing and endorsement of the church to bolster their agenda, both for issues and candidates. This type of manipulation of the church—or church leadership—often happens when the group involved has one compelling issue, whereas the church in its biblical commitment has a broad spectrum of concerns about the world.”
Ethicist Joe Trull emphasized partisan political activity hurts churches by undermining their credibility among their more politically savvy neighbors.
“When a church or minister becomes identified with a particular political party or movement or candidate, the community at large perceives the church as being used by that group [and] being naïve,” said Trull, editor of Christian Ethics Today. “And eventually, they will be disappointed, because the politician or party can never fulfill its promises to the religious group.”
Trull, former professor of Christian ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, believes even an implied endorsement by a minister smacks of inappropriate activity.
“When a church or minister becomes identified with any candidate, sooner or later that candidate will embarrass you,” he said.
While blatant endorsement of a candidate from the pulpit clearly crosses the line, churches can engage in some other political activities, experts agreed:
• Candidate forum. A church can hold a candidate forum at its place of worship, but the congregation needs to make every effort to involve all candidates—not “stack the deck” in favor of one political party.
The Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission sponsored candidate forums in several churches around the state before the 2006 elections, Paynter noted.
“We arranged for a moderator from the League of Women Voters who structured the questions, comments and response times,” she explained.
The churches' experiences offered a case study in Christian civility and responsible citizenship, Paynter observed.
“This was a great witness to the community. … Respect for the democratic processes was lived out in real time,” she said.
• Voters' guides. Churches can distribute a copy of legislators' voting records on key issues and responses to their questions on specific issues. But experts stress the guides need to be truly impartial—not thinly disguised promotional materials for special-interest groups.
“Some publications are called ‘voters' guides' but are, in fact, a public relations piece for a specific special interest group,” Paynter said.
• Prophetic witness. Churches and ministers have the right to speak out on moral issues, even when they may be controversial. Trull pointed to the example of preachers who “took very strong and unpopular positions in opposition to segregation” during the Civil Rights movement.
Churches also can make an impact through what Paynter called “acts of prophetic generosity”—doing more than what the law requires.
“The story is told of a church that enjoyed, as all churches, the benefit of tax-exempt status. In that same town, the firemen and police of the city were losing their jobs for lack of tax revenue,” she said.
“The church pondered its role and calculated what it would pay in taxes if it were not exempt from property tax. As a gesture of discipleship and community, the church gave a gift of that calculated tax amount to the city every year.
“Sometimes witness is pro-active. … Acts of generosity can be as prophetic as acts of resistance.”