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Putting an End to Pulpit Politicking

Now that the election is over, it’s time for American freethinkers to turn our attention to some unfinished business. And here’s one thing that should be at the top of the list.

Churches in America receive a broad array of special tax privileges and exemptions, in exchange for which they have just one meaningful restriction: namely, that they can’t tell their members to vote for or against a specific candidate. This is a narrowly drawn and easily evaded rule, but for a long time now, right-wing churches have been openly flouting it.

Last spring, Daniel Jenky, a Catholic bishop in Illinois, compared Obama and the Democrats to Judas, Hitler and Stalin during a weekend Mass. The weekend before the election, Jenky ordered every church under his jurisdiction to read an anti-Obama letter from the pulpit. A second Illinois bishop, Thomas Paprocki, as much as said that any Catholic who votes for Democrats is putting themselves in danger of eternal damnation:

“I am saying that you need to think and pray very carefully about your vote, because a vote for a candidate who promotes actions or behaviors that are intrinsically evil and gravely sinful makes you morally complicit and places the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy.” (source)

Another New York bishop, Thomas DiMarzio, made similar statements:

Roman Catholics who support abortion rights and vote for a candidate because of those policies, place him/herself outside of the life of the Church. In so doing, they also place themselves in moral danger.

…Is it possible to vote for somebody despite their support for these policies? To my mind, it stretches the imagination… (source)

On the other side of the aisle, Protestant churches are enthusiastically breaking the law with “Pulpit Freedom Sunday“, an annual religious-right-organized event in which pastors tell their church members who to vote for and then dare the IRS to come after them. In 2012, they thoughtfully published a full list of the churches that participated.

Of course, churches have the same free speech rights as any other organization, and they can endorse candidates for political office if they choose to. What they can’t do is endorse candidates and still expect to keep the special tax privileges that are only granted to politically neutral non-profits. When they do endorse candidates, the IRS should step in and strip them of their tax-exempt status… but in the past few years, the IRS has not been doing its job.

The IRS claims that this is because of bureaucratic confusion, that there’s uncertainty over who exactly has the authority to begin these audits. I don’t buy this (but see this article for another perspective). I think the real reason is political cowardice: whether they’re afraid of political blowback or because they don’t want to spare the resources, they just don’t want to have this fight, and they’d rather ignore the issue and hope it goes away.

Well, tough. The IRS is a government agency; their duty is to enforce the law. If they let scofflaws like these right-wing churches trample on the rules and pay no penalty for it, all they’re doing is sending the message that other people can also cheat the taxman without consequence. Churches that want to enter politics should have to play by the same rules as all the rest of us.

With President Obama and a Democratic Senate back in office, we should pressure them to move on this. Considering that the churches that are breaking the rules were almost universally opposed to their reelection, they should have every reason, both Constitutional and political, to take appropriate action. I intend to write a letter to the White House and another to my senators, and I’ll write a follow-up post with any reply I receive. I encourage you to do the same.


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