To hear some Republican politicians tell it, churches are locked in an epic struggle with tax agents over their right to free expression. In a July interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky declared that religious leaders should “be bold and challenge” a 1954 law that prevents tax-exempt organizations like churches from endorsing political figures, making donations to their campaigns, fundraising for them, or engaging in any other activities that may help (or hurt) a candidate. Ultra-conservative Representative Steve King also jumped on the bandwagon earlier this month in a speech in Iowa, urging pastors to “defy” the Internal Revenue Service. “If we can’t preach the word in America,” he said, “where can we preach it?”
Despite Republicans’ embattled attitude, the IRS has shown remarkably little interest in punishing religious leaders who violate the law on political speech. Although nearly two-thirds of Americans agree that churches should not be able to endorse political candidates, since 2008, thousands of ministers who believe the prohibition on their speech is unconstitutional have participated in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” a project designed to antagonize the IRS by openly endorsing candidates from the pulpit. In some cases, pastors transcribed their sermons and sent them to the IRS, demanding an audit, which they would in turn appeal to the courts. But there have been no repercussions for their outspokenness. In fact, a regulatory technicality appears to have suspended IRS church audits indefinitely. In 2009, a federal judge threw out the IRS’s case against a Minnesota megachurch that had allegedly endorsed Michelle Bachmann, saying the IRS needed to clarify its internal regulations. It has yet to do so.
Over the years, Republican legislators have introduced legislation to lift the prohibition on political endorsements for churches. Now, a 14-member commission set up by Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, has recommended an overhaul of the IRS’s regulations for all tax-exempt nonprofits, not just churches. In a report released on August 14, the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations, which includes some faith leaders like Florida mega-church pastor Joel Hunter but is primarily comprised of Christian CPAs and church financial advisors, condemn the prohibition on political campaigning by tax-exempt religious institutions as “disturbing and chilling.” The law’s vagueness, they argue, baffles nonprofit leaders, who are unsure what constitutes acceptable political speech. In their eyes, it’s also nearly impossible to administer. Their solution: Change the law so that non-profits—including churches—can freely endorse political candidates without fear of reprisal. Grassley's office says he is currently reviewing the proposal.
In reality, the commission’s approach assumes persecution where none exists. Organizations like Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom from Religion Foundation have been patiently filing complaints against the scads of participants in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, to no avail. “We have a bright line on this,” says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “It’s called zero tolerance of pulpit electioneering. The people who do these violations know exactly what they’re doing. I want some penalties for churches that have violated the law.”
Commission spokesman Michael Batts, a CPA and the former chairman of an evangelical financial watchdog group, was quick to point out that the problem isn’t just Pulpit Freedom Sunday. Rather than openly flouting the ban on political endorsements, many black churches simply ignore it. “African-American churches have always been engaged politically, at a significant level—it’s part of their culture,” says Batts. “A rational approach to addressing the issue of campaign activity should preserve churches as a safe haven for African-Americans to discuss political issues of concern.”
In the last days of the 2012 presidential race, black Protestants were more than three times as likely as white evangelical Protestants to say that their clergy had talked openly about the presidential candidates in church. Religion and politics are closely fused in black churches, and have been for more than a century. “Historically, black churches have been at the center of political activism,” says Fredrick Harris, a professor of political science at Columbia University. “When other avenues of political participation were closed, churches were crucial in helping African Americans mobilize politically.”
Although 12 of the commission’s 14 members are white and none are affiliated with predominately black denominations like the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Batts says they consulted with black religious leaders to discuss political activity within their churches. But Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, dismisses the commission’s invocation of black churches as a red herring. Referencing the black church’s history of political engagement is, she says, an attempt to camouflage evangelical leaders’ real motives. According to her, the campaign to end the IRS’s prohibition on political speech is a strategy to propel more white evangelicals—who overwhelmingly support Republicans—into the voting booth in next year’s midterm election. “You can’t see this as just a religious thing,” she says. “It’s about the Republican Party. It’s about 2014.”
Democratic politicians also rely on support from black clergy. Earlier this month, a coalition of black clergy endorsed Newark mayor Cory Booker’s bid for Senate. The expectation that black ministers will back Democrats is so strong that when a black bishop threw his support behind New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, in his re-election campaign, it made national headlines.
There may be a way to clarify the IRS’s regulations that doesn’t involve throwing out the prohibition on political speech wholesale. The Bright Lines Project, an organization led by tax lawyers and nonprofit leaders and housed at Public Citizen, a left-leaning consumer advocacy group, is wrapping up a four-year study on the best way to resolve nonprofit leaders’ uncertainty about political speech. They suggest that religious leaders should be allowed to offer political views as a personal opinion, rather than an edict to their followers. “We want to allow pastors to talk about political issues because they’re relevant to their churches,” says Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen. “They should be able to express their own personal viewpoints. But they shouldn’t be able to cross the line and say, ‘Therefore you should vote for these candidates.’”
That wouldn’t be enough for Alliance Defending Freedom, the organization behind Pulpit Freedom Sunday. A spokesman says their pastors’ protests will continue until the law is changed to allow total freedom of speech—including political endorsements—for churches. But there's another simple fix: Religious leaders who want the liberty to endorse candidates can give up their churches’ tax deduction. Mike Huckabee, of all people, made a similar suggestion earlier this summer. “It may be time to quit worrying about the tax code and start thinking more about the truth of the living God,” Huckabee told a group of Southern Baptist pastors. “We should stand more faithful with what God would have us say, and choose our freedom more than our financial benefit.”