Pulpits and Political Speech

In the recent wrangling over new tax bills, non-profit organizations have found themselves thrown into the conversation for several reasons. One is the modification of the Johnson Amendment, originally passed to prohibit non-profits from explicitly endorsing candidates during the “normal course” of their activities. (The passing of the Amendment itself has a dubious and politically motivated past.) The Amendment, of course, raises special concerns for churches and what is said behind pulpits during heated political seasons. It has been rarely enforced and is highly problematic Constitutionally, but it is the law of the land. And it’s (potential) repeal has led to all kinds of misunderstandings and misrepresentations about how non-profits work and why.


Our local newspaper, The Gazette, ran an article that spurred a response from a local member of the American Humanist Association. He argues that the Johnson Amendment is necessary to keep non-profits true to their mission (especially churches). He throws in the common notion that tax exemption is an indirect subsidy from the government. This understanding of why non-profits have the tax status they do often leads to the conclusion that they should not be allowed to talk politics (directly endorse politicians). They are, afterall, receiving a certain kind of free-ride from the IRS. Part of his reasoning is as follows:

Through tax exemptions, government indirectly subsidizes the work of nonprofits. The intent behind the exemptions is to ease the financial burden on organizations that operate for religious, educational and charitable purposes… These exemptions are not meant to help nonprofits, religious or otherwise, more easily engage in political campaigns.


The actual history of non-profits and their tax status is far more complex than that, and designed to encourage the individual donor. Arthur Brooks, an expert in the research field of charitable giving notes in the preamble to a recent study:


The imposition of the individual income tax in 1913 was quickly followed in 1917 by the charitable deduction that we still see today. The Congressional debate on this policy contains this argument from an unidentified Congressman: “If a man wants to make a gift to charity, he ought to be encouraged to do so and not [be] discouraged. He ought to be encouraged to make such a gift rather than be penalized for doing so.” (Desmond 1967) In effect, deductions for charitable contributions were an acknowledgment that public goods in America have always been, in no small part, a private endeavor. As such, the taxes foregone on contributions to qualifying charities were a way for private citizens to direct public resources in exchange for their own investments. This is in contrast to the notion that charitable contributions are, in modern parlance, “tax loopholes.”


In other words, non-profits enjoy the tax status they do to aid the individual giver in the investment of their funds. Governments (generally) recognize the benefit of non-profit work (including churches) and thus incentivize their activity through unique tax laws that apply only to them, and that they are responsible for by maintaining their stated activities as non-profits (they can lose their status if they are found not engaging in their stated activities). Individuals can invest their funds in an organization that is not subject to some taxation and receive a deduction themselves, and in that way the individual is encouraged to invest their funds for causes that suit them.


Non-profit organizations, including churches, are a unique benefit to communities. People give to them freely and they provide goods and services necessary to flourishing communities. Governments recognize their benefit by treating them differently. And in case you believe these laws only “benefit” churches, you ought to look up how many non-profits are in your city and the wide array of things they do.


None of these taxation arguments have anything to do with political speech or limiting political speech. In fact, there are innumerable non-profit political organizations that exist for the soul purpose of political activism. Does our letter writer intend for limits on political speech to apply only to churches? Probably. But then a better argument should be made. He takes a stab at it:


For churches, the restriction on partisan politicking also serves to preserve their true mission and helps avoid divisiveness among congregations. It encourages church leaders to treat their faithful as morally and civically astute enough to determine their own partisan political choices. It keeps churches from becoming beholden to any particular candidate or party, or effectively winking at a quid pro quo “religious” donation given for political return, an opportunity too rich for campaign managers to ignore. These are reasons why majorities of churchgoers themselves oppose politicking pastors.

Rather than threatening religious freedom as its critics contend, the Johnson Amendment has instead been effective in safeguarding the ministerial integrity of churches. Inviting partisan politics into the pulpit can only diminish that pastoral virtue.


I find it encouraging an avowed humanist is concerned with “pastoral virtue”. So am I. But we probably differ on the “true mission” of churches. A church represents objective truth about how reality works and has bearing on every aspect of the Christian’s life. This necessarily includes politics. Thus, a well-rounded Christian and a faithful church will inevitably have political consequences.


Personally, I do not believe it is right or advantageous for a pastor to publicly endorse specific candidates from behind a pulpit, but my reasons are not political. That is not what a pulpit is for. But is it the Federal Government’s job to tell a pastor that? I don’t think so. Accordingly, the argument can be made that the Johnson Amendment was crafted to silence several of Johnson’s public opponents who happened to be pastors. Is that a violation of the First Amendment? Likely.


All in all, the decision whether to use the pulpit for explicitly political purposes ought to be left up to the pastors and boards that guide the vision and work of a local congregation. Just because certain tax laws apply to them does not inherently limit the range of political speech available to them as citizens.

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