The IRS Tax Code prohibits churches from directly or indirectly participating in political campaigns.
That’s a good thing.
Current IRS prohibitions date back to 1954. They were initially proposed by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson (Democrat) and signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower (Republican).
Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office … Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.
Churches may participate in political activities such as voting registration drives and candidate forums as long as the activities do not publicly favor one candidate over another.
Many clergy feel the IRS prohibitions are an affront to religious freedom. Some publicly and proudly flaunt the restrictions and openly declare their support for candidates across the political spectrum from the pulpit.
A recent Wall Street Journal article, however, described the prohibitions as a “little-used ban” and pointed out that during President Obama’s first term, there were no audits against churches for engaging in partisan political activity. In 2013 and 2014, only three churches were audited, though it’s unclear whether those audits involved political activity.
If there is a war on religious freedom in this country, the pulpit seems unaffected. Clergy have free reign to preach in support of candidates of their choice.
That’s not a good thing.
As the Apostle Paul wrote, “all things are lawful for me, but not all things build up” [1 Corinthians 10:23].
Here’s the problem.
When clergy use their public office to become partisan actors, we lose the unique position we hold as ambassadors for Jesus Christ.
Being one of only two ordained clergy, among the approximately one thousand students, at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government gave me a unique perspective on the role clergy play in the political process.
As my classmates and I studied and discussed all the issues facing global community today, I realized that every social problem traces its roots back to the problem of sin. The definition of sin I find most helpful, is sin defined as the ways we as humans turn in on ourselves and away from others, satisfying our own needs while neglecting or actively exploiting/abusing/oppressing others.
Ultimately, clergy have the unique public office of proclaiming the answer to sin. That answer is not found in even the most compelling of political candidates. The answer is found in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
Jesus Christ takes away sin by both announcing forgiveness and by restoring broken relationships.
The best way for clergy to build up our communities is by relentlessly, passionately, and repeatedly doing what our public office demands of us: proclaim Christ.
Communities alive in Christ don’t turn from one another and isolate themselves behind their political ideologies, defending them at all costs. They move towards others in ways of openness, understanding, and dialogue.
Communities alive in Christ don’t ignore the pleas of the prophets to care for the widows and orphans. They live outwardly, praying for their enemies, forgiving seventy times seven, and celebrating that the meek will inherit the earth.
Communities alive in Christ are not bland, boring, and centrist, paralyzed by a fear of conflict. They are passionate and messy. They ache in response to other’s pain, take action in response to the suffering around them, and directly encounter Christ by living in real relationships with the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and prisoner (Matthew 25).
What candidate for office, Republican or Democrat, here this election and gone the next, can offer such lasting good news?
Yes, elections matter. They present stark policy choices on matters of literal life and death. Because clergy care we want to be involved, make our voices heard, and make a difference. It’s tempting to speak out when the correct choice in an election seems so clear and others don’t get it.
In our office as citizens, clergy are entitled, and our faith compels us, to act. We can vote for the candidate we believe is best. We can give as much money and time as election laws and life circumstances allow to the candidate of our choice. We do not lose our rights as citizens on the day of our ordinations.
The IRS prohibitions, however, helpfully and rightly remind us that in our public office as religious leaders, we best serve our communities by endorsing Christ. We build up community not by leading people to a belief in a politician or a party, but to deeper faith in the sacrificial, life-giving love of Jesus Christ.
Christ lives today as an ongoing source of reconciliation and peace. Christ lived long before the first election and will continue to reign in glory long after the final election.
For the sake of the world, may Christ alone be our proclamation.
[Note: This is my reflection on the first point of the Barmen Declaration of 1934 introduced in my previous post. The first point of the Declaration confessed Jesus Christ as the sole source of the church’s proclamation and repudiated the false teaching that other “happenings and powers, images and truths as divine revelation” could be a source for preaching.]