Magazine article The Christian Century

Evangelical Body Supports Politicking in the Pulpit

Magazine article The Christian Century

Evangelical Body Supports Politicking in the Pulpit

Article excerpt

Bucking popular opinion and a decades-old IRS policy, a group of conservative evangelicals is urging that pastors be allowed to endorse political candidates in church without risking their congregations' tax-exempt status.

A report prepared by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability--a watchdog body that advises evangelical churches and ministries on good business practices--was given to Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa).

Grassley had previously sought ECFA guidance in examining the finances of six televangelists. Instances of their lavish spending, favoritism to insiders and lack of financial transparency were not unexpected, but the senator's probe in 2011 drew praise for its spotlight on some ministries unwilling to make full disclosures.

But the ECFA's recommendations August 14 on what some advocates call "pulpit freedom" drew quick fire from church-state experts. Americans surveyed have opposed the idea of allowing political endorsements from the pulpit. And a poll of Protestant pastors in 2012 showed overwhelming opposition.

IRS regulations since 1954 have permitted clergy to address political and ethical issues in church services and activities. But clergy efforts to back or attack candidates and political parties puts a congregation at risk of losing its nonprofit tax exemption.

That should not be the case, ECFA commission chairman Michael E. Batts wrote to Grassley: "It is both disturbing and chilling that the federal government regulates the speech of religious organizations." His Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations asserted in its report that "members of the clergy should be able to say whatever they believe is appropriate" in their religious contexts. IRS guidelines also "are often vague, causing uncertainty as to what is permissible," added the report.

Two organizations, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Interfaith Alliance, sharply disagreed.

"The law on church electioneering doesn't need to be changed, it needs to be enforced," said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "ECFA's proposal would reduce America's houses of worship to mere cogs in political machines."

Lynn noted in a statement that the IRS has been working to change an internal regulation that governs its ability to investigate congregations. Americans United has reported 128 violations of church politicking to the IRS since 1996. "It's time for the IRS to act," Lynn said.

In a similar vein, Baptist pastor C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, said, "The rights of clergy to preach about the most pressing issues of the day and to provide moral guidance to their congregations are not in danger and rightly must be protected.

"But those rights are very different from standing at the pulpit--shrouded in your faith--to announce that your congregation should vote for one candidate or party over another," Gaddy said on August 14.

The ECFA said its recommendations came from 14 commission members and "66 panel members representing every major faith group in America." But Gaddy countered that "no one should misunderstand this report as representative of all people of faith," noting that some advisors wrote position papers opposing the report's conclusions.

Those brief statements of opposition on the ECFA website were signed by six non-Christian advisors. One disclaimer said if political endorsement emanated from the pulpit or in a church's regular communications, such a change would pose "grave risk to America's religious communities. …

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