Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Churches and Political Campaigns

Linda Green of the United Methodist News Service has a good article up about how churches should be careful about speaking politically in the upcoming U.S. Presidential election. The article is written mostly from the standpoint of avoiding non-profit status with the IRS. Church attorney Jim Allen:

"The mission of our church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ," said Allen. "We try to maximize the church’s resources to fulfill our mission, and one way we do that is by legally minimizing our income tax burden."

Allen said clergy should avoid political activism from the pulpit. "My first piece of advice would be to not invite candidates to speak in the pulpit, if the church is in the United States," he said.

Any statement interpreted as either endorsing or opposing a candidate is against IRS guidelines, regardless of whether a name is mentioned. For instance, a pastor declaring that "all good Christians should go to the polls and vote for the Christian candidate" would be improper if one candidate is known to be a Christian and the other is not, he said.

The prohibition extends beyond the pulpit into other church-sponsored events. "It does not matter if the activity is in the pulpit, fellowship hall, the vestibule or newsletter," he said. "It also does not matter whether the person doing or permitting the endorsement on behalf of the church is the pastor or a member."

I'm not really concerned about the tax issues related to church political involvement because, as I've written previously, the church shouldn't be involved in politics except in extreme circumstances, such as slavery or racial segregation. Christians, individually, should be involved in detailed policymaking and advocacy that reflects their understanding of Christian ethics. But the Church, as an institution, should be aware that taking stands on issues in which Christians can disagree with one another in good conscience serves only to divide the Body of Christ. When the Church takes a formal position on a political issue, it is engaging in a potentially very destructive act, and therefore should never do so casually.

Hat tip to Jim Parsons, who has a different angle:

I understand and agree with this article but I hope that does not scare preachers away from talking about politics and calling out the government when they need to. I am afraid people will take this and read into it. Saying that anything political from the pulpit will get the church sued. That is not the case. We as a church need to stand up for the rights of all humanity. We need to name the sins of government when they happen and lead the world into a right relationship with God.

UPDATE: Gavin Richardson has handily rounded-up what the Methoblogosphere is saying on this subject.

15 comments:

truevyne said...

Wouldn't it be refreshing if we did let politicians into the pulpits and what came out of their mouths was the Gospel and Kingdom work?

Gord said...

Is there a difference between being politically active, that is advocating for good social, domestic and foreign policy.
And getting sucked into the mistaken belief that one party or another is teh way to the Reign of God?

Can we be political without pushing people to support a specific candidate? Can we open up the questions that we think people should be asking (because they come from a faith perspective) and let the candidates stand on their own?

John said...

Is there a difference between being politically active, that is advocating for good social, domestic and foreign policy.
And getting sucked into the mistaken belief that one party or another is teh way to the Reign of God?


In principle, yes. In practice, no. I am sufficiently humble and have had such widely varying political beliefs over the years that I would not say that any particular political persuasion is Christian. Hence my great hesitation to proclaim "Thus saith the Lord" regarding daily policy disputes.

Can we be political without pushing people to support a specific candidate?

Not that I can see. I mean, if we say (for example), 'God wishes us to increase federal funding to public schools, withdraw troops from Iraq, and legalizes marijuana', then we are inevitably pushing certain candidates. And it wouldn't matter anyway because God doesn't state such clear policy goals for the US (or Canada) from the Biblical text.

Can we open up the questions that we think people should be asking (because they come from a faith perspective) and let the candidates stand on their own?

That we can do. Carefully. And we should be sure that it is always prefaced with the acceptance of different political persuasions as authentically Christian.

Todd said...

One problem with either the article or the quote is the equation of political activism and the focus on candidates. Political activism is action to change the systems or perceived problems. And that is kingdom work.

When Oklahoma was choosing to allow the lottery and to loosen gambling restrictions, the church should have been one of the loudest proclaiming the spiritual pitfalls that lead to family, societal, and personal destructive results.

The church has no business saying, "Don't vote for XYZ candidate because they support gambling."

MethoDeist said...

John,

It appears that you now have two Oklahomans on your blog. I don't know whether or not to tell you to laugh or cry. Of course, it is even worse than it would normally be as one is a Christian and the other is me. To make matters worse we are both from Northeastern Oklahoma. So, just in case, I will apologize now for whatever may come.

Seriously though, this is a hot button issue right now in pretty much every church regardless of denomination or other aspects.

Personally, I don't want anyone speaking for me politically but as it has been pointed out, there are some things the church must speak up about or their mission would be pointless.

However, as already mentioned, when a certain political view is pushed by the church it is hard not to push people towards a specific candidate or party. Just look at the gay marriage issue or war issue. The church standing behind these issues one way or the other will push people to one candidate or party to varying degrees.

Certain issues can cross candidate and party lines but in most cases there is push whether the church wants this or not.

I would rather see the church takes a hands off approach in most cases and realize that the individual member must and will make their own decisions regarding such issues. However, I admit that there are times that the church must be involved. The trick is to focus on the issue and let both sides have a voice which rarely works out.

The question is how is this to be accomplished and I have no real clue as how to do so. It may be that some churches will take a strong stand and that will cause some people to leave and others to join.

This is a tough issue and one that will not be resolved anytime soon I am afraid to say because it has deep implications for the church in regards to membership and growth.

Ultimately, I believe that the church has the responsibility to create a spiritual fellowship of believers that can then develop and enhance their relationship and experience of God.

I may be wrong but that is my opinion.

MethoDeist

Dan Trabue said...

"Wouldn't it be refreshing if we did let politicians into the pulpits and what came out of their mouths was the Gospel and Kingdom work?"

Aaahhh, you're talking about the Green Party, now!

But seriously... John, what do you think of the historic peace churches (and other churches that have declared themselves opposed to war)? Are they making a political statement?

gavin richardson said...

we had to cover our butts with this stuff in mind as a bunch of our members run for local offices. so we have to kick them out when they try to post signs on the lawn or park the pickup truck with their campaign slogans. it's just easier to kick everything out, especially when members are running against each other.

our policy is that we can preach on issues, not candidates.. that works for me. and most understand.

John said...

Todd wrote:

When Oklahoma was choosing to allow the lottery and to loosen gambling restrictions, the church should have been one of the loudest proclaiming the spiritual pitfalls that lead to family, societal, and personal destructive results.

I don't believe that gambling should be illegal. I could even create a Christian argument to this effect. Am I a bad Christian?

However you answer, if the Church steps out and advocates specific policies, then it is dividing its members by political ideology.

John said...

Dan wrote:

But seriously... John, what do you think of the historic peace churches (and other churches that have declared themselves opposed to war)? Are they making a political statement?

Pacifism, regardless of its practicality, is Biblically rock-solid. I think that historic peace churches are being authentically pacifist when they oppose all wars (contra those that only oppose American wars) and do not allow others to defend them from violence.

Such churches are not really taking a political stand because they are wholly withdrawing from the political realm. They are refusing to identify with any polity.

John said...

Gavin wrote:

our policy is that we can preach on issues, not candidates.. that works for me. and most understand.

I don't really see a difference here in terms of dividing the congregation. If a pastor stands up in the pulpit and says "All good Christians must support the legalization of marijuana" or "All good Christians must support the war in Iraq" then he is necessarily dividing people over issues that good Christians can disagree with in good conscience.

jim said...

This came to us via our conference web newsletter:

Church Attorney: Keep Politics out of Pulpit

(UMNS) As election season intensifies and politicians line up at the church door to shake hands and stump for their campaigns, an attorney for The United Methodist Church advises churches and clergy against endorsing or opposing candidates for elected office.

"Churches should take stands on appropriate issues, but it cannot be a substantial part of their ministry," said Jim Allen, general counsel of the United Methodist Council on Finance and Administration.

In the United States, candidates from all political parties often are seen in pulpits or at church functions delivering their messages or seeking endorsements. However, after investigating numerous complaints of inappropriate political activity by nonprofits during the 2004 presidential campaign, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service has stepped up efforts to enforce laws that limit churches and charities from involvement in partisan campaigns.

In 2005, the IRS began warning churches and nonprofits that political campaign activism could endanger their tax-exempt status...

gavin richardson said...

john

i see your point. it seems, thatse it comes more into our context for addressing issues is sharing what information is factual, what the church's stance would be (if there is one), or sharing how an issue weaves into our narrative. we don't tell people what to think, that is left to their discernment.

Dan Trabue said...

"I think that historic peace churches are being authentically pacifist when they oppose all wars (contra those that only oppose American wars) and do not allow others to defend them from violence."

But some of the peace churches do and will take exception to those politicians that will "force" their defense upon us. We HAVE stood opposed to the Trumans, the Johnsons, the Reagans and the Bush's who've grievously abused the power of a military.

And I think rightly so.

We're not withdrawing wholly from the political realm (some peace churches have and others haven't).

Tim said...

John and Gavin: Like John, I agree the "issues" side of political activism can be pretty problematic and divisive.

While I think we can agree the gospel's concern for the poor. But is there room for disagreement in how to live that out? I remember how vigrously the UMC opposed President Clinton's welfare reform in the name of these concerns. Or more recently illegal immigration. (There are lots of reasons to support strengthening policies against illegal immigration that are not xenophobic, and one of them is the wage deflation or the working poor).

I just think trying to navigate politics (or political issues) in the name of religion is a mine field that very few can navigate and not blow themselves up or someone else. If we focused our own lives and ministries a little bit more locally, we'll find the global change will hapen.

Tim Sisk

another John said...

What a bunch of weak kneed namby pamby sissies. this is what I hate about Methodists.

Does the IRS put the fear of the true god (government) in the Methodist body?

Is this America? Do I have the right to free speech here?

For the love of money you would shut your pastors mouth.

Why don't we just redact the bible where the government doesn't like what it says.

Remember Methodists, Jesus got a scratch for you.