Back in February, the Internal Revenue Service cautioned churches that they're at risk of becoming "arms of political campaigns and parties." Now that campaign season is in full swing, the warning about politics in the pulpit is worth repeating.
That pastors mix politics with ministry is hardly a new phenomenon. The practice speaks to the moral obligation many religious leaders feel to act on political topics. In this country, the civil rights movement was led by a reverend whose birthday Americans now celebrate every January. Overseas, churches played a critical role as havens for fledgling democrats in communist eastern Europe.
But that's not the kind of activism that worries the IRS. Its concern is churches breaking a 1954 law that bans tax-exempt organizations from participating or intervening in political campaigns on behalf of a candidate.
The IRS has roughly 40 investigations going, but new cases are being reported all the time. The reason is that the politics-pulpit link is growing stronger in this year's close and consequential election. Church leaders of differing ideological stripes are stepping up efforts to move more people from the pews to the polls and, by implication – and even by direct endorsement – to certain candidates.
Republicans have long found reliable voters in evangelical mailing lists. Mindful of the influence of conservative Christians, especially in 2004, evangelical leaders are redoubling their efforts to get out the vote for GOP candidates. Wiser to the law, they're trying to avoid technically violating it – for instance, by distributing voter guides that include all candidates, but whose careful wording makes the preference clear.
But some evangelicals are now urging pastors to directly endorse candidates. For years, many black ministers have welcomed Democratic candidates to their churches and embraced their campaigns. These direct endorsements step over the legal line.
Liberal churches of all kinds are trying to match and check the evangelicals' efforts. In Ohio, for instance, liberal pastors have filed a protest with the IRS against conservative churches openly supporting Republican gubernatorial candidate J. Kenneth Blackwell. But conservative Christians are filing complaints, too. The "rat out a church" campaign encourages evangelicals to attend liberal churches to report on suspect pastors.
America's religious leaders, and politicians seeking their help, must be mindful of the danger of too much politics in the pew. For one thing, politicians err if they think of evangelicals, for instance, as like-minded voters. Subtle changes are occurring within this group, including the emergence of those who want to extend their social causes to alleviating poverty and helping the environment – traditional themes for Democrats.
But the chief danger is to religion itself. Ultimately, people join churches for spiritual nurturing, progress, and fellowship. That purpose peters out when a church acts too much like a political party. A minister's highest calling has to be helping congregants to a better understanding of God, and giving them spiritual tools to deal with their life and their world. That's very different from telling them how to use these tools in political campaigns.