Silencing the American Pulpit
Earlier this year, a number of my friends complained when a prominent church leader shared her views on why she was supporting a particular presidential candidate. Despite the fact that she and her husband had assembled a team of leaders who have virtually transformed the modern church culture into one that has powerfully impacted the world, many of these friends were ready to unfriend and unfollow her. One person summarized her feelings this way: “I don’t go to church to be told how to vote.” The woman who had inspired and encouraged them for years was now no longer needed, simply because she dared to share her political views.
In America, it isn’t acceptable to share your views on who should be elected if you happen to be a church leader. That’s a privilege your forfeit when you go into ministry. This is partly due to the idea we have that the church and state ought to remain separate. But it’s also due to the fact that nearly every church in America has chosen to file for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. It’s become an accepted fact that churches and ministries are required to obtain 501(c)(3) status with the IRS if they wish to remain exempt from paying taxes (an idea that is widely accepted—but unfounded).
Churches were never asked to file for this status until 1954, when Senator Lyndon Johnson was running for re-election and was being opposed by two tax-exempt organizations. In order to silence them, he added a provision to a massive tax overhaul bill that made it illegal for tax-exempt organizations to publicly support or oppose political candidates. Johnson attached his provision to the tax bill and it was never discussed in senate hearings. It simply became law and it made the political activities of his opponents illegal. And in doing so, it also made the public sharing of political views by religious leaders illegal.
The 501(c)(3) tax law prohibits political campaign activity by a church by defining them as an organization:
“which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
Because leaders have been told they must obtain 501(c)(3) status, and because they believe it may be revoked if they engage in political campaigning, many have opted to remain silent. It’s not that leaders can’t speak to political issues in general. They’re allowed to discuss abortion, welfare, taxes, the economy and other political topics. But when it comes to supporting a specific candidate, this is where the line has been drawn in the sand. Although no church has ever had their tax-exempt status revoked, few are willing to risk losing what they perceive to be an essential part of their ministry.
Historically, church leaders have taken an active role in political affairs. Israel’s kings were anointed by the prophets. Every wise king they ever had understood that he needed a prophet’s counsel. And a king who failed to heed the voice of the prophet was assured of ruin.
Times have changed. We no longer allow prophets to choose our heads of state. But prophets still receive revelation from God about who He would have occupy our highest offices. God has not changed His ways. The revelation is still available, if we want it. And although the government (and some believers) would prefer the prophets remain silent about our elected leaders, I think we would be wise to consider their insights before casting our votes.
Many of us are opposed to the mixing of politics and religion. It can be a messy business. But I believe that as Lance Wallnau has taught for years, the church’s true calling is not to be isolated from the world like an island, but an active participant which helps determine the course of history. If we’re going to be salt and light, we must influence every area of culture; education, arts & entertainment, business, media, and government.
If our leaders are content to remain silent about politics and government, they’re telling us by example, we should remain silent, too.
Is this the kind of influence we want to have on our culture?
If you’d like to know how your church or ministry can be free of the restrictions of 501(c)(3) status, read on:
Are Churches Required to File for 501(c)(3) Status?
Churches and ministries are not required to obtain 501(c)(3) status to be tax-exempt. From the founding of our republic, they have always been by default, tax-exempt. Although tax-exemption for religious organizations has been challenged in the Supreme Court, the Court has always upheld the fact that they must remain tax-exempt, even if they choose not to file for 501(c)(3) status. The government cannot decide whether a religious organization is tax-exempt. All religious organizations are considered tax-exempt by default.
My wife and I are the administrators of a tax-exempt ministry. We’re considered tax-exempt not because we’ve received a 501(c)(3) status (we’ve never even applied for one) but because activities such as teaching the bible, healing, deliverance and prayer are considered Christian ministry. You may donate to our ministry and deduct it from your taxes as a charitable contribution, simply (and only) because our primary function is advancing the Christian faith. That fact, by itself means our ministry is tax-exempt.
We’ve chosen, however not to file for 501(c)(3), or any other tax-exempt status. Instead, we’ve chosen to incorporate as a business. Although you may take a tax deduction for your donation (because we are legally a tax-exempt ministry) we have chosen to pay taxes on all the donations we receive. That allows us to be both a tax-exempt ministry for your purposes, and a business for ours. And we are not subject to the regulations of a 501(c)(3). We could avoid paying taxes if we wanted to, but we prefer the freedom of having a business. The additional tax burden is worth it to us.
Here is a little known secret about tax-exempt ministry I’d like to share:
The IRS has another status churches and ministries can apply for which is the 508(c)(1)(a) designation. It offers all the benefits of the 501(c)(3) status with none of the drawbacks. The application for this status can be filled out in a few minutes and is usually processed quickly. Organizations under this designation are not subject to the restrictions of political involvement of 501(c)(3) status. The forms required to be filed each year by the IRS are much easier to complete. Helping Hand Outreach has helped many faith-based organizations convert to the 508(c)(1)(a) status. (If you’re interested in learning more about them, you can click on the link provided.)