I am of two minds when it comes to North Carolina Republican Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr.’s bill to repeal a 1954 law strictly regulating the political speech of churches and ministers.
Though the measure is rarely enforced, the political activism of some conservative Christians over the past two decades has caused religious and political liberals to demand that the tax-exempt status of some conservative ministers be revoked. These same people are mostly silent about the political activism of liberal clergy, especially those who are African-American who preach politics, lobby Congress and endorse candidates from the pulpit. Mr. Jones is right when he complains that the Internal Revenue Service applies a double standard to the law.
It ought to be none of the government’s business what ministers say in their pulpits, but government thinks it becomes their business when churches and other nonprofits accept a gratuity from government in the form of tax exemptions that allow contributors to deduct donations from their income taxes and churches to avoid paying taxes the rest of us must pay.
Any way you slice it, this is a government subsidy of religion. People who may not share a particular faith, or any faith, are thus forced to contribute to ideas with which they might disagree. Thomas Jefferson said of such a practice: “Almighty God has created the mind free . .. to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”
There are at least three options to correcting this imbalance in church-state relations. One, pass the Jones bill (HR 2357) and allow clergy to say what they please and actively lobby for or against legislation without fear of losing their churches’ tax-exempt status. The downside of this is that more politicians would be free to come to churches, taking time away from preaching about a kingdom not of this world in favor of earthly salvation. Churches may now hold weeknight political forums at which candidates may speak and answer questions. They are prohibited, however, from endorsing candidates from the pulpit, or actively lobbying for or against legislation. Some who favor Mr. Jones’ bill imply that congregants cannot decide for whom to vote without the express endorsement of a minister. That insults the intelligence of those in the pew.
A second option would be for Congress to revise the 1954 legislation and be more specific about its intent. It could evenly apply the law against politicizing religion to liberal and conservative, black and white churches and ministers. This would correct the current double standard in the law’s approach.
A third option is for churches and other nonprofits who may wish to engage in political discourse and legislative activism to give up their tax exemptions so government will have no controlling authority over them. This would be my preference because it offers them unfettered opportunity to influence and shape government according to their own beliefs without the fear or favor of government leaders who might support their views today but after a future election oppose them.
All politicians of whatever party or persuasion invoke the name and approval of the Almighty for their candidacies and programs, but God says, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” (Isaiah 55:8).
What would change for churches that were denied tax exemptions? The early church enjoyed the disfavor of government to the point of persecution. It grew in numbers and spiritual power in proportion to the amount of opposition Christians faced.
When churches become “accepted” and appendages of political parties and politicians, they tend to depart from their primary obligations and opportunities and become identified with earthly causes and political kingdom-building.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Young, a former president of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, believes churches should avoid a too-close association with politics. Mr. Young recently told the New York Times: “I just think the religious entities of America need to keep their prophetic voice. And you lose that if you send money to politicians or openly support them during an election season.”
Amen. But if clergy choose to be political, they don’t need special privileges from government. If they choose to eschew politics, they don’t need government subsidies, unless God has run out of money.
Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.