by Greg Krehbiel on 14 February 2017
Why are churches banned from speaking about politics, or endorsing candidates?
At least part of a religion’s message will usually have relevance in the political world. But churches typically dance around the issue. They advocate a position, but never a candidate. Some people chafe under that restriction and want to be able to endorse candidates.
Many people mistakenly think this is a constitutional issue, and associate it with Jefferson’s comment about “a wall of separation between church and state.” But it’s not a constitutional issue. We have freedom of the press, but the press can and does endorse candidates. So freedom of religion does not imply that churches can’t.
The restriction has to do with churches’ tax-exempt status. It was added as part of the 1954 tax reform, and was proposed by Sen. Lyndon Johnson to rein in tax-exempt, right-wing organizations that were attacking his fellow Democrats.
I have always felt that if a church wants to get involved in politics it should just pay taxes. Problem solved.
But most churches can’t afford to pay taxes.
A hard-hearted fellow might think that’s a good thing, and want to apply it universally. Get rid of the tax exemption altogether. If a church can’t afford to pay its taxes then it should close down and quit using up useful street corners with unoccupied buildings.
Trump has promised to go the other way and undo the speech restriction on churches (while keeping their tax-exempt status), and there are a couple proposals in the House to do that. Is that a good idea?
I’m skeptical. Some churches would just become fund-raisers for candidates, and that would transform pastors and the church bureaucracy into just another part of the political machine. I don’t think that would be a good thing for the church or for society. A penitent should be able to go to church without fear that his politics are wrong.
While religious messages do touch on politics, for most religions it’s not a central part of their mission. They’re out to save souls. If they can endorse candidates, and become political players, they’re going to get used and abused by crafty politicians, and that is not a socially good thing.
The current balance doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. Saying “we hold this moral principle, and the faithful should apply that to their voting” works, and it preserves an appropriate distance between politics and religion.
Besides, it’s one thing for a church to call out something as a sin. That’s within their alleged expertise. It’s another thing entirely to know how that moral principle should be worked out in the dirty world of the practical, and that’s simply not the expertise of religious leaders. In my experience, when they veer into political questions they tend to make very bad decisions.
2017-02-14 » Greg Krehbiel