With politics and religion intermingling quite a bit this campaign season, the Pew Research Center for Religion & Public Life decided to investigate how often pastors discuss politics and social issues from their pulpits. The results were pretty encouraging for those who believe churches should respect the law and stay away from activities designed to endorse or oppose candidates – but they also show there’s still a lot of work to be done.
In a survey conducted in June and July of over 4,000 American adults, Pew found that of the 40 percent who said they attended religious services once or twice in the months before the poll was taken, 64 percent said their religious leader spoke about political or social issues.
As far as the tax code is concerned, that’s not a problem. Houses of worship and other 501(c)(3) non-profits are free to discuss issues. Remember, Americans United has the same tax status as houses of worship, and we obviously focus on issues.
This is not the place to endorse candidates.
But we can’t attempt to affect the outcome of an election by advising people to vote for or against certain candidates – and neither should houses of worship.
Now for some bad news: Fourteen percent of church attendees said they heard their religious leader endorse or oppose a political candidate. That may sound like a low number, but in a country with an estimated 350,000 houses of worship, that adds up to tens of thousands of violations.
When broken down by demographics, 29 percent of African-American Protestant churchgoers said they have observed their religious leader endorse Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, and 20 percent of that group said their pastor spoke out against Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump from the pulpit.
We don’t know what exactly was said in these cases. Not all negative criticism of a candidate is a command not to vote for that person, and not all praise is an endorsement. But it’s safe to assume that at least some of these pastors stepped over the line.
And, yes, we know this is a bipartisan problem. If you have evidence of any church – left-leaning or right-leaning – violating federal law through campaign intervention, you can do something about that.
Since 1996, AU has operated an initiative called Project Fair Play, which seeks to educate clergy about what the tax code does and does not allow in terms of political activity. We also report churches to the Internal Revenue Service (125 and counting!) that we believe should be investigated for engaging in unlawful political activity. But we cannot report any house of worship based on hearsay – so if you have real evidence of a specific church’s partisan political activities on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for public office, please send it to us. We’ll be happy to take a look.
The Pew survey shows that most houses of worship are obeying the law. That’s good. But some don’t want to, and they should be investigated by the IRS. Unfortunately, the agency has not taken this issue as seriously as we would like in recent years.
You can do something about that too. If you want to see the IRS aggressively enforce the tax code’s prohibition against political activity by tax-exempt houses of worship, make your voice heard by signing our petition.