Politics in the pulpit

By Jerry Falwell

If you are a pastor, you will no doubt soon be receiving your perennial “scare letter” from Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He writes many evangelical pastors each election year, warning them that they will lose their tax-exempt status if they comment on the upcoming elections, distribute “Voter Guides” or, God forbid, endorse a candidate.

Barry Lynn was formerly associated with the American Civil Liberties Union. He claims to be a “reverend,” but when I once asked him to tell me the name of a local church where he actually served as pastor, I did not get a clear answer. I have always suspected that the “reverend” title is intended to deceive the media and the public into thinking that Lynn is a good pastor who is trying to save the churches from being damaged by illegal involvement in politics. The fact is, Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union are dedicated to throwing God out of America’s public square and converting the U.S. from “one nation under God” into a secular and Godless nation.

Liberal groups are using this week’s defeat of Rep. Walter B. Jones’ “Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act” (H.R. 2357) as a means to proclaim that pastors must painstakingly avoid political issues in their pulpits. That bill, which needed a two-thirds vote for passage, was defeated 239-178 (with 15 not voting). While the bill failed, 178 votes is a great beginning toward the ultimate passage of this important religious freedom bill.

The Jones bill was designed to annul a 48-year-old law that prohibits all tax-exempt groups – including churches – from participating in political activity under the threat of loss of tax-exempt status. However, it is important to note that only one church in the history of our nation has ever lost its tax-exempt status because of political wrongdoings. And in that case – wherein a pastor irresponsibly purchased billboards and newspaper ads telling people not to vote for Bill Clinton – the loss of tax-exempt status lasted for only an hour before being returned.

To hear Barry Lynn tell it, pastors must now avoid political issues at all costs when addressing their parishioners. He said, “This bill may have been the Religious Right’s dream, but it was a nightmare for anyone concerned with the integrity of houses of worship and the political process.” Remember, this is a man who would stifle virtually every religious phrase in the American public square.

The truth is, while Rep. Jones’ bill would have afforded desirable government protection of pastors who speak out on moral and political issues without fear of Internal Revenue Service retribution, pastors nonetheless retain an absolute right to speak out on political/social issues in their churches.

Indeed, the left has influenced many – even many in the Congress – to falsely believe that America’s clerics must maintain unconditional silence on issues such as abortion, homosexual rights, pornography and other ills of our society. (Of course, liberal ministers and church leaders are often afforded singular freedoms to speak out on these same issues.) In this age of moral relativism, it remains imperative that pastors vocally instruct their congregations on the key issues of our day.

I talked yesterday with Grover Norquist, a great conservative and president of Americans for Tax Reform. Mr. Norquist was excited that he had finally convinced the Internal Revenue Service to publish the specifics of what pastors and churches may and may not legally do in election campaigns. I urge all pastors and church leaders to visit the website of Americans for Tax Reform to learn what is and is not appropriate in regard to church and government involvement.

Mr. Norquist and his team pressed the IRS to define, in detail, to what extent tax-exempt religious organizations may properly be involved in the political process. The answers are clearly spelled out on their website under the headline, “Know Your Rights!” Every pastor should read this important 25-page document to learn how to properly address political/social issues.

Here are a few excerpts of what every pastor and church may legally do:

  • Churches may distribute nonpartisan voter guides describing candidates’ stands on the issues.
  • Churches may engage in nonpartisan voter registration drives.
  • Pastors may endorse candidates from the pulpit as long as they make it clear they are doing so as individuals – not as a church endorsement.
  • Churches may invite candidates to attend and speak at events as long as they make the offer available to all candidates for the same office. It is not required that all candidates attend, but rather that they all have the same opportunity to do so.
  • Pastors may urge their congregations to write, e-mail or call their elected representatives to lobby for specific legislation.
  • Churches may engage in active lobbying as long as the amount is not “substantial,” defined by the courts as 5 percent of a person’s or organization’s time or resources.

    I urge 200,000 evangelical pastors and church leaders to “render unto Caesar” on Nov. 5 by advising their 70 million parishioners to cast “Christian” votes for the men and women who best represent their biblical values.