Pulpit fiction

By David Waters Dozens of defiant Christian ministers across the country defied IRS warnings and turned their sermons into partisan … Continued

By David Waters

Dozens of defiant Christian ministers across the country defied IRS warnings and turned their sermons into partisan stump speeches on Pulpit Freedom Sunday 2010 in a brash display of support for freedom of speech, religion and the American Way.

Or so claims the Alliance Defense Fund, an evangelical ACLU. But the ADF’s widely (and often breathlessly) reported campaign to “bait the IRS with pulpit politics” seems to have been more of a bait and switch.

A pastor in Tennessee discussed the abortion views of several local candidates, but declined to endorse or critize any particular candidate. A pastor in South Dakota said he decided not to talk about any candidates. It’s possible that some of the promised “nearly 100” dissenting pastors did endorse someone from the pulpit Sunday, but I have scoured the Web and can’t find any reports of such.

Even the ADF’s post-Pulpit Freedom Sunday report couches its success in vague, non-partisan terms: “The pastors preached sermons related to biblical perspectives on the positions of electoral candidates or current government officials.”

Good for them. As American citizens, all clergy are free to preach “sermons related to the biblical perspectives” of anyone from President Obama to the local water board.

So what gives? Why all the fuss about a little known and lesser enforced 1954 IRS rule that merely tries to keep tax-exempt organizations (which includes most religious congregations) from getting involved in the tax-funded partisan election process?

“Pastors and churches shouldn’t live in fear of being punished or penalized by the government — in this case, the IRS,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley.

Fear not, pastors.

“Pulpit Freedom Sunday is entirely unnecessary. Preachers are perfectly free to interpret and apply scripture as they see fit, speak out on the great moral and ethical issues of the day, and urge good citizenship practices, such as registering to vote and voting,” said J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and On Faith panelist.

“The only thing they can’t do — in exchange for the most favored tax exempt status — is to tell the faithful how to vote.”

Even that is debatable.

Pastors, as citizens and taxpayers, are even free to endorse specific candidates — as pastors John Hagee, Rod Parsley and others so ably demonstrated in 2008.

Besides, the IRS rarely enforces the 1954 rule. The IRS hasn’t revoked a church’s tax-exempt status since 1992, when a New York church placed an ad asking “How then can we vote for Bill Clinton?”

Churches and other charitable/educational non-profits are tax exempt because they have agreed NOT to participate in the partisan election process. It’s a deal they make, in part to save billions of dollars a year, in part to protect them from political influence, and in part because they are called — at least in theory — to a higher allegiance that transcends political candidates or parties or even national boundaries.

“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Are preachers who endorse candidates from the pulpit jeopardizing their congregations’ non-profit status or merely ensuring their own non-prophet status?


NOTE: Greg Scott, director of media relations for the Alliance Defense Fund, wrote to take issue with my inability to find a preacher who took part in Pulpit Freedom Sunday who actually endorsed a candidate:

“Nearly all of them preached their sermons this past weekend, with the remainder set to do so sometime prior to Election Day,” Scott said. “This includes Steve Hickey, who was quoted in the Rapid City Journal story to which you linked. The problem with that story is that he explained to the reporter with whom he spoke that although he didn’t preach his PFS sermon on 9/26, he did plan on doing so in the next few weeks. Not sure why the story didn’t include that important fact.”

Scott promises to send me a list of all preachers who participated and the names of those who actually endorsed candidates. I’ll post it here when I get it.

UPDATE: The ADF has provided a list of six pastors who endorsed or opposed political candidates from the pulpit this past Sunday. I have contacted each of them for comment.

Pastor Paul Blair, Fairview Baptist Church in Edmond, Okla.
Pastor Ron Johnson, Living Stones Fellowship in Crown Point, Ind.
Pastor Dan Fisher, Trinity Baptist Church in Yukon, Okla.
Pastor Gus Booth, Warroad Community Church, Warroad, Minn.
Pastor Larry Gordon, Cornerstone World Outreach Center, Sioux City, Iowa

Here’s what Blair had to say:

“Our founding era knew that God had established the home, the church and human government and had a lot to say about all three in the Bible. Consequently, believing that human government was by Divine origin, pastors preached annual “Election Sermons” to their congregations and to newly seated legislatures.

“According to the very thorough 1928 study entitled ‘The New England Clergy and the America Revolution’: ‘…these election sermons discussed the government of the ancient Hebrews and its excellencies; many were theoretical, concerned with the origin and end of government; some dealt more particularly with their own charters and the dearly won rights of Englishmen; some, with great freedom of speech, gave practical advice to the Assembly about well-known evils and desirable laws; the majority discussed in greater or less detail the qualities and the responsibilities of magistrates. Year after year the same themes were discussed; often the same phraseology was used…Now and again there was an election preacher who was exceptionally direct and thorough-going in his discussion either of government of the agitations of the day, or of both…these sermons dealt with matters of government…(copies were distributed widely) where they became ‘text books of politics.’

“We have record of Election Sermons dating all the way back to 1633.

“Last Sunday, I preached a Bible-based message addressing moral issues of our day — specifically abortion and homosexual marriage — quoting 32 different verses of Scripture, three quotations from our Founding Fathers and one quotation from an election sermon preached in 1803 by Rev. Matthias Burnett. After comparing the platforms and voting records of the Democratic and Republican candidates for Governor, I told my congregation that on November 2, I would be casting my ballot for Representative Mary Fallin (the Republican candidate).”

Here’s what Johnson had to say:

“I was one of the original 33 pastors who took part in the Pulpit Initiative in 2008. Pastors have been preaching about public policy issues since the founding of this great nation. While the pulpit is not the place for promoting partisan politics, it is the place to speak out against politicians and policies when they stand in direct conflict with what the Scriptures teach. Pastors are called to preach with moral clarity as they lead the Church in fulfiller her role as the conscience of the nation…

“Two years ago I stood in the pulpit and challenged our congregation that, as a Christian, a vote for then Senator Barack Obama would be a sign of “severe moral schizophrenia.” Why? Not because he was a Democrat. It had nothing to do with his party affiliation. In my opinion, both parties are in dire need of reform. Certainly not because he was African American. The majority of Americans celebrated the fact that an African American could be elected to the highest leadership position in our nation. And most certainly not because he wasn’t bright and articulate. He is highly gifted. So why? Because his ideology and the platform which flowed from that ideology was diametrically opposed to God’s law.

“This year I used the Obamacare healthcare legislation as the epitome of the tyranny which is strangling our nation. I called this monstrosity “the most egregious act of tyranny and arrogance” noting that this was “a bill so large and jam packed with regulatory red tape that few even took the time to read it before they voted on it!”

“This bill represents the largest expansion of government funded abortion since Roe v Wade. And, to make matters worse, the President repeatedly lied to the American people saying abortion coverage was not in the bill!

“And let’s not forget the arrogance of our elected officials to mandate the purchase of this mess, whether we like it or not!

“I specifically called out Congressman Brad Ellsworth, a pro-life Democrat who “sold out” both his constituents and the innocent unborn Americans he is supposed to protect. He is currently running for US Senate. I believe he has more than proven he is unfit to lead us.

“In addition, our own Congressman, Pete Visclosky, voted in favor of this hideous piece of legislation. My advice to our congregation: “I strongly encourage you to make sure he finds a new job in the coming New Year as well.”

Here’s what Booth had to say:

“For me, the reason is simple…… free speech. The IRS wants churches to ‘pay’ for free speech. Free speech is the ‘property’ of the citizen. A good illustration of what we at Warroad Community Church are doing is like the bully (IRS) that say’s, ‘Don’t step over this line in the sand.’ But then they keep moving the line closer to where you are standing even thought when they drew the line closer to you, they are doing it on your private property.

“The bully has no right to draw a line in the sand and demand you not step over it because it is your property (First Amendment Rights). So what we believe churches should do is, step over the arbitrary and unjust line and call their bluff. We know that if push comes to shove, we will be successful because we are standing on our own private property.

“The IRS drew a line in the sand on the church’s private realm and forbad churches from crossing it. We just need to take back what is rightfully the churches property. For churches that don’t feel called to this fight…..its okay, we will fight for them, but we would rather fight with them.

“I endorsed Lee Byberg, Tom Emmer, Dan Severson, Chris Barden, Pat Anderson, Russell Walker, Dan Fabian, Greg Wersal, Tim Tingelstad, and Dan Griffith.”

Here’s what Fisher had to say:

“I participated in the Pulpit Freedom Sunday because I believe a pastor does not shed his First Amendment rights just because he steps into the pulpit. As an American citizen, a pastor has every right any other citizen has whether in the pulpit or out of it. Certainly, churches cannot officially endorse and give money to support individual candidates but there’s nothing in the Constitution that forbids a pastor to do so. A pastor is not a “tax free” organization whose tax free status can be revoked; he pays taxes just as any other citizen. A simple study of history reveals that, until the middle of the 20th century, pastors routinely preached “election sermons” where they unashamedly endorsed or opposed specific candidates and encouraged their congregations to vote in a particular way. These pastors were not told that they were breaking the law or doing anything unconstitutional. The government did nothing to hinder or discourage their speech. Since the Constitution hasn’t changed, pastors have the same freedom today that they did then.

“One other point is worth making, churches are not “tax free” because they have filed for a 501-C3 status. Churches are automatically tax free because the Founders made it so from the very beginning. Throughout our history this issue has been examined by the courts and their finding has consistently been that the Founders made churches tax free. They did this primarily for two reasons: 1) they believed the church provided the moral instruction necessary to maintain a republic (George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams among many others clearly taught that a republic like ours could only survive if the people remained virtuous), 2) they believed that the power to tax was the power to control and they intended to keep religion free from the controlling arm of government.

“In Sunday’s message, I, not my church, endorsed Mary Fallin for governor of Oklahoma, and numerous other conservatives such as Todd Lamb for Lt. Governor, Scott Pruitt for Attorney General, James Lankford for U.S. House of Representatives District 5, and Charles Thompson for U.S. House of Representatives District 2.”

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  • usapdx

    The tax exampt law was set up only for thoes groups that followed the tax exampt law’s rules. Total freedom of speech is for all BUT with total freedom of speech is the requirement that you will file your yearly income with the I.R.S. and pay your just tax. Thoes groups that cannot obey the tax exampt rules are not tax exampt yet so many of them thing they can have their cake and eat it too account they are religious group. They are great at speaking out on political matters as well as claiming tax exampt which is wrong account of the violation of the law’s rules. Congress should just repeal the tax examt law and then they can have total freedom of speech like the rest of the tax payers. I bet many whould like to know the incomes of these socalled tax exampt groups.

  • Goosebump

    I wish the author’s simplistic view was shared by the IRS. The fact is the IRS doesn’t look merely for an explicit endorsement (or opposition) of candidates. In its own publication to Churches, the IRS gives hypothetical scenarios of what violated the “prohibition” and considers speeches urging people to vote one way on a particular issue on which candidates are divided as electioneering. See IRS Publication 1828, page 7, example 3.

  • areyousaying

    So “Christian” churches are above the law like their Lord Cheney. What would happen if a Mulsim clergyman endorsed or smeared a candidate.Take tax exemptions away from all chruches.Taxes from the riches of the Mormons and Catholics alone would pay down a huge part of the deficit.

  • WmarkW

    I know this is a dicey issue.I just want to make sure that whatever the IRS does about voting endorsement, they treat Franklin Graham and Ted Haggard the same as Al Sharpton and Jeremiah Wright.

  • areyousaying

    And now children, let’s all sing:Obama hates god

  • areyousaying

    “Churches and other charitable/educational non-profits are tax exempt because they have agreed NOT to participate in the partisan election process..”And by not keeping that promise, including the Mormons forming a huge multi-state PAC to support Prop 8, they have shown their true “Christian” character.

  • aerie1

    Take away the nonsense of tax-exempt churches. All of them. Back taxes are in order as well. Religion has been harming & holding this country back to way too long in all our societal issues. We are mocked & made a laughing stock to advanced, civil countries. We are becoming a 3rd world theocracy stuck in the dark ages. Make them pay with cash. Cha-ching!

  • cbinflux

    Whatever became of David Waters; how did he come to leave WaPo??

  • djmolter

    I guess that in saying, “I can’t tell you how to vote, but if I could, you know who I’d endorse.” our pastor adhered to the law. Take away tax exemption from churches or give it to everyone who does apolitical charity work.