The people in Curt Parker's pews are used to hearing politics from the pulpit. Parker, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Avoca in New York, makes a habit of speaking out on political issues. So when he endorsed Sen. John McCain from the pulpit on Sept. 30, it was nothing new. Parker has endorsed candidates before.
This time, though, Parker joined 30 other pastors nationwide in a controversial move to provoke IRS investigations and incite a Supreme Court case, as part of the Alliance Defense Fund's Pulpit Freedom Initiative. The pastors endorsed or condemned candidates in defiance of an IRS regulation that prohibits pastors from making pulpit endorsements if they want to keep their church's tax-exempt status. While the ADF condemns the regulation as a violation of the free exercise of religion, others see legal and theological objections to pastoral endorsements.
The ADF is challenging a 1954 amendment that sets limits on the political activities of not just churches but any nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization. Pastors are free to do anything short of direct or indirect participation in a candidate's political campaign; they may, for instance, publish voter guides, publicize a candidate's voting record, and even engage in minimal lobbying. The regulation prohibits outright endorsements, forming political action committees, giving campaign contributions, or rating candidates. Pastors and other nonprofit leaders are free to endorse candidates as long as they do so as private citizens and not as representatives of their churches.
The ADF says these limitations violate the free exercise of religion. Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the ADF, said, "What we're arguing is that the government has no business telling pastors what they can and can't say. . . . It's the job of the pastor, not the IRS, to determine the content of his sermon."
But the question is not whether pastors have the right to endorse candidates from the pulpit. No one-not even the IRS-would dispute that pastors are free to say what they will as long as they are also willing to give up their tax-exempt status. The real question is whether tax exemption is a privilege that comes with reasonable conditions, or a constitutional right.
Stanley contends that tax exemption is a constitutional right that pastors cannot afford to give up: "I believe that the Constitution mandates that churches be tax-exempt." Stanley argues that if the government is allowed to tax churches, it takes the first step toward destroying the free exercise of religion, giving it the ability to tax those whose views it disfavors and excuse those whose views it favors: "Tax exemption can be used as a powerful weapon to suppress ideas and to suppress viewpoints." Stanley said removing the tax exemption creates a greater risk of entanglement with the state and the church.
J. Brent Walker, executive director of Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said he disagrees with the ADF, since pastors already have freedom of expression from the pulpit: "The pulpit is free. Preachers can preach the gospel, interpret scripture, preach on the great moral issues of the day, and also, if they want to give up their tax exemption, endorse candidates." The problem, Walker said, is that some pastors want both unfettered speech and tax exemption.
According to Walker, the Supreme Court has not found a constitutional right to tax exemption. In Walz v. Tax Commission of City of New York, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution allows tax exemption. But in Swaggart Ministries v. Board of Equalization, the court argued that states are not required to provide an exemption, and that taxes don't necessarily burden the free exercise of religion. Based on precedent, it seems that the Supreme Court will not consider tax exemption a constitutional right.
But setting aside the question of whether a pastor has the legal right to endorse a candidate, is it wise and prudent for pastors to do so? This is a question the ADF repeatedly states that it does not presume to answer. However, it is a question their 31 participating pastors have apparently answered yes.
Parker said he believes he has a moral obligation to speak out on political issues since a nation rises or falls based on its obedience to God's moral law. Speaking out on political issues is part of being culturally relevant and refusing to compartmentalize his faith. Parker said, "I think my relationship with Jesus covers all aspect of my life. I don't think it's slotted in some things and excluded from others. . . . I should be able to do whatever the Lord is leading me to say without any fear of retribution or punishment or investigation."
Stan Hastey, a former pastor and now the minister for mission and ecumenism with the Alliance of Baptists, said pastors should fear the consequences for their congregations. Hastey, a former pastor, signed an Interfaith Alliance petition that repudiated pastoral endorsements. He said, "I think that, at least in a Baptist context, it is toxic, it is absolutely toxic to endorse a candidate."
Hastey said if he were to have endorsed a candidate during a recent speaking engagement at a church in D.C., half of the congregation would have gotten up and walked out, no matter who he endorsed: "It would poison relationships between members of this church for months if not years to come. I think it is absolutely an abuse of pastoral authority to stand up in a church and endorse a candidate. . . . I can't think of anything that is more theologically bankrupt than to abuse the pastoral vocation in that way."
Sam Andreades, pastor of the Village Church in New York City, said he agrees with Parker that faith impacts all areas of life. But in contrast to Parker's congregation, Andreades thinks even faithful attendees of the Village Church wouldn't be able to guess his political leanings. Andreades said several principles bear on his decision not to endorse political candidates from the pulpit.
First, pastors should be wary when it comes to commenting on matters not in their expertise. But mainly, Andreades said, America's pact with churches is "quite reasonable" and one that we can "easily respect." The law "says that 'We will protect your activities-not only not establish laws but also protect you, will make no laws that contradict your right to propagate your religion. At the same time, we have this clear line of not endorsing political candidates.'" Andreades called this a "marvelous arrangement for Christianity," because Christianity is about converting consciences and competes well in an open marketplace of ideas.
Because he believes that "Jesus Christ is Lord over all of life," Andreades said he wouldn't rule out the possibility of crossing that "reasonable line" and condemning a Hitler-like character. But even if a pastor felt compelled to cross the line, fighting to keep his tax-exempt status is the wrong fight, Andreades said: "If we lose tax-exempt status . . . in order to stand for what's right, then that's a cause for rejoicing." It means that following Christ cost us something. Besides, Andreades said, losing tax-exempt status is the mildest form of persecution-a loss of privilege, not a loss of rights.
It seems that evangelical public opinion is on Andreades' side. A recent Pew Forum survey found that more conservatives believe that churches should stay out of politics: 50 percent today, up from 30 percent four years ago. When it comes to pastoral endorsements, white evangelical Republicans are less likely to approve pastoral endorsements than they were four years ago. Some 40 percent said churches should not endorse candidates in 2004, and now 59 percent say churches should not endorse candidates.
Walker said endorsing candidates is "divisive, corrosive, and uncalled-for." It would split churches into red and blue churches, and also blunt the church's prophetic edge, Walker said: "You can't raise a prophet's fist at government when you have the other hand wrapped around with a firm bear hug."