How would you like to go to your local house of worship one day only to hear your minister, priest, rabbi, or imam tell you which presidential candidate to vote for? A growing number of religious leaders in the United States are doing precisely this, brazenly testing the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) prohibition against church endorsement of political candidates. It is a disturbing trend for churches like the Universal Life Church Monastery, which strongly supports the strict separation of religious and government policy.
One of the most notorious of America’s “political preachers” is Pastor Jim Garlow of Skyline Wesleyan Church, a mega-church in suburban La Mesa, California. On 7 October, just weeks before the U.S. presidential election, Garlow plans to stand up in front of his 2,000-seat congregation and tell them to vote against one of the presidential candidates. Garlow has also been trying to recruit other ministers to do the same as part of Pulpit Freedom Sunday, an annual effort to challenge IRS rules on tax exempt status for 501(c)(3) charitable organizations. Some participating churches have even sent the IRS DVD recordings of their sermons. Also challenging secular government policy is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who held their own Fortnight for Freedom back in June by holding Masses and rallies in opposition to the Obama administration’s health-care rules on contraceptives.
Pulpit Freedom Sunday participants intend to take their agenda to the courts as a freedom of speech and religion issue. It is a precarious situation for the IRS, which is supposed to remain apolitical in such matters: cracking down too hard on violations of 501(3)(c) regulations inevitably brands the IRS as politically biased. Although online churches like the ULC support the rule, targeting churches, mosques, synagogues, or other houses of worship could be construed by conservative religious leaders as an impingement on free speech and religious freedom. So far, the IRS has avoided enforcing the rule against Pulpit Freedom Sunday activities.
Letting such activities go unchallenged, however, essentially means letting churches take over the state in a piece-meal, step-by-step coup. By ignoring tax code violations by 501(c)(3) charitable organizations, the IRS is basically giving billions to churches engaged in political campaigning, which amounts more-or-less to government subsidization of religion. A pastor’s freedom of speech has its limits, however, and that limit is where such speech facilitates or accommodates the insinuation of religious doctrine into political affairs. At least, this is the view held by many who get ordained in the Universal Life Church.
If the IRS wants to put its principles into practice, it will stop church leaders from telling their congregations how to vote. This means putting its foot down and standing its ground. Such organizations should not be subsidized by being granted them tax-exempt status–whatever their political persuasion–as this ultimately amounts to the funding of religious politics. That said, we would like to know what our ordained ministers think about this controversial issue. How far should the government go in enforcing IRS rules for churches?