Originally Published: February 12, 2017 6:01 a.m.
Faith and politics naturally mix, by the very nature of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
One cannot advocate for the unborn or the poor, without being political. However, a large difference exists between pushing policy and backing candidates.
The debate surfaced recently when President Trump, at a National Prayer Breakfast meeting, pledged to eliminate IRS limits on church political activity.
Trump declared religious freedom as “under threat” and vowed to repeal an IRS regulation that says faith leaders who endorse candidates from the pulpit risk losing their tax-exempt status.
Trump’s pledge is likely a nod to his evangelical Christian supporters, who helped put him in the White House. The IRS rule has been in place since 1954 for tax-exempt charities, including churches. It is rarely enforced, but abolishing it would require action by Congress.
To expand on a recent Courier editorial, doing so could have sweeping effects that extend beyond conservatives. Simply put, churches could be pulled into the campaign finance whirpool, effectively turning them into “dark money” funnels that play partisan politics without disclosing donors.
Repeal of the IRS rule would blur and cross lines. It would open churches to the possibility of spending a great amount of resources to openly influence elections, and for donors to get tax breaks for political contributions.
No doubt, some conservative Christians would like to see the rule abolished, but others – including young voters – tend to support a clear separation of church and political endorsements. There are already a number of liberal churches in the U.S. that are active on policy issues, and this change would set the stage to get more involved in partisan politics.
At the same time, repealing the rule does not appear to have widespread public support. In a recent poll by Lifeway Research, a religious survey firm based in Nashville, eight in 10 Americans said it was inappropriate for pastors or faith leaders to endorse a candidate in church.
According to the bible, believers are to obey governmental authorities, and the government is to be just and fair. And, when the government does not live up to its role, we still are to live up to ours. Think of the late-Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who advocated for civil rights but did not endorse specific candidates.
Thus, churches should encourage their members to play a role as responsible citizens in their communities, including becoming informed about issues and voting in elections.
But, churches or their leaders are not to tell their congregants how to vote. Churches should expect their members to engage in the political process in an informed and civil manner, pay their taxes, and respect the fact that people come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences and may have differences of opinion in partisan political matters. That does not dismiss the need for a basis of right and wrong; it grounds us in respect.
Still, while a repeal would lift a cloud of confusion and churches have natural political positions, giving them unfettered freedom to spend money in the political arena is as wrong as corporations doing the same.