Kenyn Cureton is vice president for church ministries for the Family Research Council. The FRC is a right-wing religious organization that lobbies for the usual litany of right wing religious concerns-anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, prayer in schools and so on.
Recently, however, Cureton added another layer to the usual mix. He wants Christian preachers and congregations to endorse political candidates. His idea is to identify candidates whose political ideas line up with a certain reading of Scripture. These candidates become the chosen ones that Christians should support. Cureton suggests that not voting for biblically qualified candidates would be an act of infidelity toward God.
The rub, of course, is that pesky Internal Revenue Service, with its sticky rules prohibiting non-profit organizations from engaging in political activity. But Cureton has some thoughts about that as well. He thinks a little civil disobedience from preachers is in order. He believes its time to challenge the rules and if necessary take the matter all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
It is rare for the IRS to actually revoke a church’s tax-exempt status for political activity, though it has happened. And there are some murky places in the law, especially for churches that have a political bent–on the left and on the right. Faith communities have typically had the right to “speak the truth to power,” so long as they do not make lobbying a full time preoccupation and do not have a “vote for” whomever on the church marquee out front.
That said, any church endorsing a political candidate, even using Cureton’s convoluted biblical litmus test, would clearly be in violation of both the letter and the spirit of the current law.
On the other hand, there is nothing particularly sacred about being tax exempt. The two main types of tax exemption–property tax and income tax–are both vestiges of a time when Christianity was the official religion of certain states. During the colonial period established congregations were funded by tax revenues, and even ministers were on the city payroll. And of course church property was tax exempt because the state does not tax itself.
The ratification of the U.S. Constitution, however, brought about a separation of church and state. Congregations and ministers were no longer funded with tax revenues. But with a nod towards the role that churches play in the community, the practice of exempting church property from taxes continued.
The other major exemption churches enjoy, exemption from income tax, is governed by the IRS code, section 501(c)3. But most churches have never actually filed for this exemption; they were “grandfathered” in as the law was expanded to make room for non-profits other than churches.
All of which is to say, if local congregations find the privilege of tax exemption is hindering their ability to speak to the powers that be, or endorse political candidates, then simply give up their tax-exempt status and do whatever they want. Jesus didn’t say that the church was entitled to be free from paying taxes. In fact, he said “render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”
So if certain congregations decide that promoting a particular candidate or political party is important enough to forfeit tax exemption, then those congregations should consider it a small price to pay for being faithful to their mission.
Which, in this instance becomes, Go ye into all the world and make voters.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church, Auburn in Ala.