Pastors Speak Their Mind (and Flout the Rules)

Jesus, God, and all thatIt’s another dreaded election year, and the leaders of many religious organizations somehow feel put upon by the IRS because they can’t preach about politics.

But why?  No one forced tax-exempt donations on them—in fact, they took them willingly—so it’s surprising that they’re now chafing at the regulations that come along for the ride.  The solution is easy: if nonprofit status is a deal with the devil, then don’t accept nonprofit status.

The Internal Revenue Service makes clear that churches and pastors may organize non-partisan voter education activities, voter registration, and get-out-the-vote drives (with an emphasis on non-partisan).  Religious leaders speaking for themselves can say whatever they want, and they can speak “about important issues of public policy.”

However, all nonprofit organizations, including religious organizations

are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made by or on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. … Religious leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official church functions. …

[Nonprofits] must avoid any issue advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention.  Even if a statement does not expressly tell an audience to vote for or against a specific candidate, an organization delivering the statement is at risk of violating the political campaign intervention prohibition if there is any message favoring or opposing a candidate.

But many pastors can’t accept this.  I don’t know if they honestly think that it’s unfair or if they figure that they’ve already tipped the playing field so much in their favor that they’ll try their luck for even more, but the Alliance Defense Fund has organized the annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday (October 7 this year).  On this day:

The pastors will exercise their First Amendment right to preach on the subject [of the moral qualifications of candidates seeking public office], despite federal tax regulations that prohibit intervening or participating in a political campaign. …

The point of the Pulpit Initiative is very simple: the IRS should not be the one making the decision by threatening to revoke a church’s tax-exempt status.  We need to get the government out of the pulpit.

Wow—strange thinking.  Tax-exempt status is granted by the government.  It’s a contract, not a right, and it comes with strings attached.  If we the public will be subsidizing an organization, we are entitled to limit its actions.  No one’s strong-arming the church, and they can drop both the nonprofit status and the strings attached any time they want.

To some extent, it’s a zero-sum game.  (For example, when Mormon desires for polygamy clashed with the needs of the state, someone had to lose.)  The head of the IRS addressed this conflict of tax-exempt status and freedom of speech:

Freedom of speech and religious liberty are essential elements of our democracy.  But the Supreme Court has in essence held that tax exemption is a privilege, not a right, stating, “Congress has not violated [an organization’s] First Amendment rights by declining to subsidize its First Amendment activities.”

If the IRS constraints against speaking out on political issues are a problem, then don’t enter into a contract with the IRS.  Drop your nonprofit status, tell church members that they can no longer deduct donations, and then you can give your opinion about any candidate or issue.

But to keep your nonprofit status, you must follow the rules.

See the first post in this series: What do Churches Have to Hide?

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Related links:

Does the Christian Care About the Poor or Not?

A novel about Christian apologetics and atheist counter-apologetics

The New Testament is brimming with demands that the Christian care for the poor and needy.  Think of the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25:31–46), the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), or the story of Jesus and the rich young man (Luke 18:18–30).

How some politicians and religious leaders can juggle the hypocrisy is beyond me.  I’ll grant that the Bible can be picked apart and made to say just about anything, but isn’t charity a prime demand?

[Jesus said:] Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. (Mark 10:21)

[John the Baptist said:] Anyone who has two coats should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same. (Luke 3:11)

If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:17–18)

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)

Jesus and Aliens

Raphael’s “Mond Crucifixion” painting is modified to show an alien-headed Jesus on the crossThe editor of the New York Times recently published an article called “Asking Candidates Tougher Questions About Faith.”  He opens with this:

If a candidate for president said he believed that space aliens dwell among us, would that affect your willingness to vote for him?  Personally, I might not disqualify him out of hand; one out of three Americans believe we have had Visitors and, hey, who knows?  But I would certainly want to ask a few questions.  Like, where does he get his information?  Does he talk to the aliens?  Do they have an economic plan?

Yet when it comes to the religious beliefs of our would-be presidents, we are a little squeamish about probing too aggressively.

My own view is that religion is off topic.  Candidates for a job as pastor can expect questions about religion.  But for the job of president?  Religious questions are out of bounds.  We’re governed by a secular constitution that includes the constraint, “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust.”

I long for the day when a candidate will dismiss a question about his/her religion with, “That’s irrelevant.  Next question.”  Ask about candidates’ values, their specific plans, their qualifications, and so on, but one’s religion is as relevant and as personal as questions about the style of one’s underwear.

A columnist from was quick with a response.  She seemed outraged at the Jesus/aliens comparison, but her most substantial comment was to reprint the comparison and state, “I’m not joking.”

Is outrage appropriate?  Which belief—in aliens or Jesus—raises the bigger questions about a candidate’s ability to reason?

Sure, I see the difference between Jesus belief and alien belief.  Jesus is supernatural.  Space aliens are not.  We have nothing to compare a supernatural Jesus to except myths or legends, which sure makes the Jesus story look like a myth or a legend.

On the other hand, aliens aren’t supernatural.  They are life forms (we know about plenty of those) who travel using technology (we know about plenty of that).  Science keeps finding strange new animals on earth living in extreme environments—at the bottom of the ocean, under miles of rock, in glaciers.  Is it so hard to imagine them on other worlds?  Their discovery would be surprising or even shocking, but we wouldn’t need to discard any scientific laws if aliens presented themselves.

I’ll agree that belief in aliens with insufficient evidence is a bit nutty.  But that’s nothing like believing in supernatural beings with insufficient evidence.  I’m not joking.

Photo credit: Jesus Was a Space Alien

Related links:

  • Bill Keller, “Asking Candidates Tougher Questions About Faith,” New York Times Magazine, 8/25/11.
  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “NYT takes on aliens, baggage, Trojan horse faith,”, 8/25/11.
  • Issues, Etc. interviewed columnist Sarah Pulliam Bailey in its 9/1/11 podcast, “Media Coverage of the GOP Candidates’ Religious Views.”