Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Churches and Political Speech
distributed 5/5/17 - ©2017

"Churches should not be endorsing politicians. We should be getting politicians to endorse our values."

I can't find the source for that comment. My recollection is that it came from Martin Luther King, Jr., but it may have been a different wise and faithful church leader with clear priorities and allegiances. (Information on a correct attribution is welcome!)

I raise that topic, of course, because of one piece of yesterday's news. In a Rose Garden ceremony on the National Day of Prayer, surrounded by "religious leaders" of a certain political leaning, Pres. Trump signed yet another executive order (#34 of his short tenure). This one is titled, "promoting free speech and religious liberty." (NPR has the full text of the order, with helpful annotations and comments.)

This new order -- and I'm only going to deal with the first part of it -- is a threat to the political democracy of the United States. More importantly, though, the perspectives it embodies are a threat to the church.

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There is one very important detail to address right at the start. US tax law, and specifically the Johnson Amendment, does not single out churches to constrain their political speech.

At yesterday's signing ceremony, Trump made the ludicrous statement, "For too long the federal government has used the state as a weapon against people of faith." The US tax code does place some narrow restrictions on any agency which has applied for, and been granted, tax exempt status. Churches and other religious groups are a small part of that group, which also includes universities, hospitals, and a raft of social service agencies.

Forbes has a list of the 100 largest U.S. charities for 2016, with a tally of their private donations received. All of these, and countless others with smaller budgets, are free to speak out on political issues, and to engage in lobbying. They cannot, though, support or oppose specific political candidates. That is the only restriction on political speech, and it applies to all tax-exempt institutions, not just religious ones.

Non-profit organizations have to file a tax form every year, the dreaded 990. (Many local churches don't have to file the 990 directly, because they are under the umbrella of their denomination's filing -- which is actually a tremendous gift and an act of trust toward churches.)

Eco-Justice Ministries is a non-profit corporation, with 501(c)(3) tax status. We file the 990-EZ version of the form -- which I would say is misnamed with that EZ tag. 15 pages into the filing, part V, question #46 asks, "Did the organization engage, directly or indirectly, in political campaign activities on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for public office?" We always answer, "No". We'd be in trouble if we said yes.

The next question (part VI, question #47) asks: " Did the organization engage in lobbying activities or have a section 501(h) election in effect during the tax year?" We generally answer, "Yes". Those activities and expenditures then have to be described on Schedule C, part II-B. We are quite free to speak and act on political issues, with no threat to our tax status, and without any censoring of our message.

All non-profit entities, not just religious ones, have to live with this minor restriction. That's part of the deal of being tax-exempt, and being able to receive tax-deductible donations. It is an inflammatory distortion to see this as an attack on religion.

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The Johnson Amendment of 1954 -- which established that prohibition on supporting or opposing candidates -- has turned out to be a valuable protection of our political system. By keeping non-profits out of electoral politics, it has made it possible to do a better job of tracking the money in politics.

Campaign finance disclosure would be impossible if non-profits could endorse candidates. The IRS says, "A tax-exempt organization is generally not required to disclose publicly the names or addresses of its contributors set forth on its annual return."

Imagine an individual or business that wants to hide their political contributions. So they make a $50,000 donation to Outspoken Community Church, and the church then puts up billboards and runs ads in support of Candidate X. There's no way to see who bankrolled that campaign effort. That's why three US Senators recently wrote that undoing the Johnson Amendment "will effectively lead to the elimination of our nation's campaign finance laws."

Yesterday's executive order can't undo the Johnson Amendment. It only instructs the IRS to hold off enforcing that law. But the repeal of the "Johnson Amendment" is being written into tax legislation now being developed in the House of Representatives. Yesterday's executive order may be one way of seeing how much the public complains about the negating of this tax provision.

There's already too much "dark money" in US elections. Our system suffers when we don't know who is funding political campaigns. Allowing religious organizations to be another conduit for undisclosed contributions is a real danger to our democracy.

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Allowing churches and other faith groups to get involved in electoral politics is also very bad for the church. It distorts our goals and priorities.

The perhaps-MLK quote at the top of today's commentary shows what happens. Faith groups should be making clear statements about our values and beliefs. Those will -- I hope -- be far more visionary than any political platform. Our proclamations should be aspirational challenges to our members and our communities. We should be asking all candidates how they intend to make progress toward the principles that we cherish, and critiquing them on where they fall short. (Voter guides that objectively measure candidates on important issues and values are allowed under tax law.)

But when we start to endorse candidates, we're letting them set the agenda, and define the goals. We're effectively saying, "I'm with her" or "I'm with him", when we should be saying, "I'm with God." As any politically diverse congregation will demonstrate, people who say "I'm with God" can take starkly opposing political stances.

Putting our focus on candidates distracts faith communities from our deeper mission. The Union for Reform Judaism -- the largest Jewish denomination in the country -- said Trump's move could open the floodgates to turn worship services into campaign rallies. The CEO of the Minnesota Council of Churches said, "We are concerned the order will pollute the integrity of the voice of faithful, turning some faith communities into partisan political tools under the banner of religion."

Churches, other faith communities, and all non-profits have to do a delicate balancing act. We must be engaged with the important issues of our time. We must speak out and lobby on matters that are central to our mission. But especially in faith communities, we must always keep rooted in our core beliefs, looking toward principles that are more profound and more complex than any candidate can offer.

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Letting faith communities endorse candidates is bad for the country, and bad for the church. The executive order is a half-step in the wrong direction. Legislative action that would take the Johnson Amendment out of the tax code would be a huge mistake.

So contact your US Representative, and tell them to preserve the Johnson Amendment. (That's lobbying, not a candidate endorsement, so Eco-Justice Ministries can urge you to do that!)


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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