Bishop Aubrey Shines believes it’s important to present his Tampa, Fla., church parishioners with information. That usually takes the form of exegeting scripture, but it sometimes takes on a political flavor: Shines never hesitates to tell his congregation who he’s voting for and why he’s doing it.
“We should ignore political parties, and, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., measure [candidates] by the content of their character,” Shines said. “Let’s see if they measure up to some standard of morality that we would be comfortable with as believers in Christianity.”
Shines is part of a growing movement to challenge the so-called Johnson Amendment, a 1954 Internal Revenue Service regulation prohibiting clergy from participating in the political process—risking their churches losing tax-exempt status. Then-Senate Minority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson crafted the rule as a way of silencing critics in his home state of Texas, and now some religious leaders are banding together to change or overturn it.
“From the fundamental foundation of our nation, this is where our leaders were vetted,” Shines told me. “The church had influence over the masses.”
A commission under the umbrella of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability recently sent a report to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, recommending Congress change and clarify—but not fully repeal—the Johnson Amendment. The commission said the amendment serves a useful purpose in forbidding tax-deductible donations to go toward political campaigns, but its prohibition against endorsing candidates chills free speech.
“There’s no doubt in our minds that it’s unconstitutional, it just hasn’t been challenged as related to a pastor’s sermon from the pulpit,” said Erik Stanley, an Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) attorney who served as legal counsel to the commission.
In 2008, ADF launched Pulpit Freedom Sunday, a coordinated effort to have clergy preach about political issues and then send the recorded messages to the IRS. Thirty-three churches participated the first year, a number that grew to more than 1,200 this year—including Aubrey Shines.
“Pastors who are participating are recruiting other pastors,” Stanley said. “I believe this really is becoming a nationwide movement of pastors who are saying, ‘You have no constitutional right to in any way interfere with what I preach from the pulpit to my congregation.’”
The IRS has yet to take the bait, but Stanley said ADF stands ready to take a legal challenge through the court system.
Eric Rassbach, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said his organization is also looking for a way to settle the issue in the courts: “It would be great if eventually a court would decide this issue as opposed to the IRS giving itself more power than it deserves. We hope that day will come soon.”
A 2012 Pew Research study found two out of three Americans don’t want their pastors to speak about politics. Stanley said no one wants to compel clergy to incorporate political speech into their messages, but clergy should be free to make the decision for themselves, based on personal or theological reasons.
Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, told me most church-goers want their pastors to proclaim the gospel and allow lay people to apply biblical principles in the political sphere. Yet he still wants the Johnson Amendment’s speech ban overturned: “It may be unwise to routinely spout politics from the pulpit, but it shouldn’t be illegal. Anyone should have the right to say what they want from their own pulpit.”
I asked Shines, an African-American who pastors an interracial church, why African-American pastors are more likely to talk about politics from the pulpit. He said it’s because for so many years they had no other options: “The black church was the only place where black leaders had an opportunity to speak. Martin Luther King spoke mostly in churches. He couldn’t go to the media.”
Shines said the media still provide disparate coverage, choosing to make people like Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton the mouthpieces for all African-Americans. “They don’t represent the views of the majority of blacks,” he said. “There are tons of us who have very conservative views, [but] the media isn’t interested. … They only want to hear from who they have ordained as the speakers for the community. It’s insulting.”
So Shines continues to inform his congregation, regardless of what current IRS regulations say: “We’re not going to be intimidated by this Stalinist idea that we can discuss every issue but this one.”