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Allan Brown

Politics in the pulpit

Charity | The law allows churches to do more than they may realize

A century ago, Theodore Roosevelt famously called the presidency a "bully pulpit." Today, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State argues that intermingling politics and religion produces pulpit bullies.

"Project Fair Play," an Americans United initiative, sent out letters to thousands of evangelical pastors in an attempt to "stop illegal church electioneering." But according to Jere Royall of the North Carolina Policy Council, the intimidating letters fail to let pastors know that most are doing less, not more, than the law allows.

"God told us to 'love your neighbor as yourself,'" Royall said. "Public policy affects the lives of countless numbers of our neighbors. I don't see how a Christian can be fully obedient to that command without getting involved."

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Royall says pastors have much more freedom than they generally assume. "Churches can't endorse specific candidates, but pastors, as private citizens, can," he said. Also, churches can't spend "a substantial amount of time" lobbying or working for the passage of specific legislation, but Royall said 5 percent to 15 percent of a church staff's time is the standard that's allowable: "If a church has two or three full-time staff members, and a number of volunteers, 5 percent of their total work time amounts to quite a lot."

Kenyn Cureton, vice president of church ministries for the Family Research Council, said the most significant action a church can take is simply to register its members to vote. "There's absolutely nothing wrong with holding a nonpartisan voter-registration drive in your church," he said. Churches also can make their buildings available for candidate speeches, as long as they don't specifically endorse a candidate.

And, of course, none of these rules matter if the church doesn't care about losing its tax-exempt status. A number of churches-so-called "free churches"-have done just that. Peter Kershaw of Heal Our Land Ministries calls tax-exempt status "hush money. . . . For the sake of a tax deduction, pastors are putting a muzzle on themselves and their churches."

The "free church" movement, though growing, still represents no more than 5 percent of the 350,000 churches in America. Besides, as Royall says, the problem is not that the government is muzzling the church: "The problem is that we have muzzled ourselves. We have tremendous freedom. We just need to exercise it."

Of course, a church that has good teaching and worship will be influential even if it does not do voter registration or anything else explicitly political, because its members will bring spiritual depth to their duties as citizens.

Political Do's and Don't's for Churches

The following activities are allowed:

  • Discuss positions of political candidates on issues
  • Hold nonpartisan voter-registration drives on-premises
  • Invite candidates to speak at church meeting or service
  • Lobby for specific legislation (up to 5 percent to 15 percent of total staff and volunteer time)
  • Rent church facility to candidate (provided the rate is the same as for other groups)

The following activities are NOT allowed by churches, but ARE allowed by pastors:

  • Endorse candidates
  • Make financial contributions to candidates
  • Distribute campaign literature
  • Establish a political action committee (PAC) or make contributions to PACs

-Sources: Alliance Defense Fund, James Madison Center for Free Speech, the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Concerned Women For America

Rusty Leonard and Warren Cole Smith
Rusty Leonard and Warren Cole Smith

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