This past Sunday 33 pastors from all across the country deliberately broke the law. Prompted by the Alliance Defense Fund, a socially conservative legal consortium based in Arizona, these pastors stood in their pulpits and endorsed political candidates.
The law prohibiting this sort of political activity goes back to 1954 when then Senator Lyndon B. Johnson introduced into the tax code language prohibiting non-profits from engaging in overt political activity.
The code now reads that tax-exempt status can be denied to organizations which “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distribution of statements), any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.”
The Alliance Defense Fund and the 33 pastors who broke the law are trying to make this a First Amendment issue. They argue that their right to express themselves freely from their pulpits is hindered by the law. They hope the IRS will strip one or all of the churches of their tax-exempt status and thereby set the stage for a court battle that will eventually see the 54-year-old law thrown out.
Don’t hold your breath. This is not a First Amendment issue. The underlying premise in this silly debate is that tax exemption is an inalienable right. And it’s not. Tax exemption is a privilege.
The idea behind tax exemption for non-profits is that entities such as the Red Cross or United Way are probably going to do more good in the community than the taxes that might be collected from them would provide. That notion might be subject to review, but it does create the basis for tax-exempt entities to raise money and then go out and provide community service.
Churches have a little different history. Established churches in the colonial period were not taxed because they were originally part of municipalities. With the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, church and state were separated and churches no longer functioned as part of city government. Their tax-exempt status, however, continued. The privilege now is granted to churches by the tax code which governs all non-profits. This is true whether a church has actually filed for tax exemption or not. Most have not.
But it is a privilege, not a right. There is no inherent reason for a church to be tax exempt. In fact, the case could be made that by allowing churches tax-exempt status the government is actually subsidizing religion.
And if churches are allowed to engage in partisan political activity, that means that taxpayers are not only subsidizing religion, but partisan political activity as well.
If preachers want to play politics from the pulpit, to throw the full weight of the divine presence behind some measly political party, that’s fine. Just don’t expect the rest of us to pay for it. They should renounce their tax-exempt status and become what they truly want to be ”a precinct house for local politics.
But if they want their churches to be authentic communities of faith, then they should realize that the cause we serve is larger than the politics of the moment.
God is more than any political party. God is more than any nation or any form of government. In fact, God stands over against all power arrangements because none of them are capable of fully accomplishing God’s will.
And we have the freedom to proclaim that from our pulpits every day with absolutely no fear of recrimination.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Alabama.
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James L. Evans is a retired Baptist preacher living in Alabama. Over 35 years, he served churches in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. In support of his pastoral work, Evans published 5 books including “First and Second Corinthians: Immersion Bible Studies” (Abingdon Press (2011).