On Saturday and Sunday, we heard messages on a myriad of topics. Some resonated deeply with me; others, not so much. But (nearly) as interesting to me as what we heard was what we didn’t: nobody told us to vote for (or against) Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, or even Evan McMullin.[fn1]
So what? you rightfully ask. Does the church ever endorse candidates?
No. But last Sunday was a special day:
Sunday was Pulpit Freedom Sunday.[fn2]
What is Pulpit Freedom Sunday? Some background first: 1954 saw a fundamental reform of the tax system. One part of that reform (a small part, fwiw) introduced a prohibition into section 501(c)(3): organizations exempt from tax under that provision (including, among others, churches, universities, museums, and nonprofit hospitals) can’t endorse or oppose candidates for office.[fn3]
I don’t plan here on discussing whether this prohibition is good or not; academics (including me), journalists, politicians, and others have spilled a ton of ink arguing for and against the prohibition. For our purposes, the prohibition exists.
At least some pastors and other church leaders, however, feel that this limitation prevents them from doing their duty; they don’t believe that their beliefs can be separated from the political sphere in which those beliefs interact.
Since 2008, the Alliance Defending Freedom has sponsored Pulpit Freedom Sunday; basically, it designates one Sunday in October for preachers to explicitly violate the prohibition by endorsing or opposing a candidate in their sermons. Then they’re to send copies of their sermons to the IRS.
By endorsing a candidate, these churches no longer qualify for their tax exemption. In theory, the IRS should revoke their exemptions, which will allow the church to sue, and ultimately (the ADF believes), the Supreme Court will hold the provision unconstitutional.
In practice, the IRS has only ever revoked one church’s exemption for endorsing (or, in that case, opposing) a candidate for office, and that revocation predated Pulpit Freedom Sunday by several years.
In spite of General Conference falling on Pulpit Freedom Sunday, and in spite of the contentious US election, speakers on Sunday were silent about candidates for office. And frankly, I’m glad they were; I prefer that our church leaders exercise their prophetic duties, calling out unrighteousness and power and preaching Christ, and Him risen. I prefer that they trust us to understand our values, and to vote accordingly.
And so the message they didn’t deliver was exactly the message I hoped not to hear.
[fn1] (though clearly at least some on that list deserve to be voted for or against)
[fn2] Btw, the date of PFS was basically impossible to find online this year; it’s been a whole lot easier in previous years. If anybody from ADF is reading this, could you please make it a little clearer next year? Pretty please?
[fn3] They can, on the other hand, lobby and endorse political positions (except where those endorsements are essentially endorsements of candidates), as long as their lobbying isn’t a too-substantial part of their activities.