Religious institutions have a longstanding tradition of politicking. Just looking back as far the Catholic Roman Empire shows the papal seat was far more a political position than a religious one, with candidates vying for the role rather than being divinely anointed by God. The papacy and the Vatican then represented total power, with the monarchies of Europe submitting to the pope. Today society has moved on from the absurdity of the Vatican being an economic and political power, and the US political system allows religious organizations to maintain their 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, so long as they refrain from politicking at the pulpit—a violation of the Johnson Amendment.
However, as usual, this is not enough for the religious right, whose members believe the Johnson Amendment throttles their right to free speech. In defiance, pastors countrywide participate in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” an annual event held in October (this year’s was October 2) where clergy members submit their political preachings to the Internal Revenue Service in an audacious “come-and-get-me” challenge.
Pulpit Freedom Sunday is organized by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), and its message is manifested in the words of Pastor Jim Garlow, who claims any challenge to his political preaching will be met with more ferocious and fervent politicking from the pulpit. Garlow represents the views of the religious right succinctly, because many believe that they are being persecuted for their inability to preach politics from the pulpit. The retort from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, among others, is quite simple: either oblige by the laws governing your 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status or face an audit by the IRS.
My former church, St. Anthony of Padua in The Woodlands, Texas, offered a “Life Teen” program dedicated to providing high schoolers with a more nuanced, “modern” interpretation of the Bible. Rarely were eyes ever batted at a political sermon at Life Teen, where gay marriage was chastised and attendees were forcibly encouraged to participate in a day of silence against abortion. When this type of issue advocacy is still permitted, one wonders why many churches and pastors are still crying out that they’re being muzzled and that their congregations’ rights are being trampled on.
Garlow and many other preachers boast about Pulpit Freedom Sunday as part of a swashbuckling crusade against the evil government and corrupt IRS, claiming that in the sixty years of the Johnson Amendment (a piece of legislation I have written about previously), zero churches have been audited. Garlow is incorrect, but he does shed light on an extremely important failure of the IRS to more actively enforce the separation of politics from religious influence.
The reason the IRS fails to proactively audit more churches is buried deep within the bureaucracy of our government. In a desperate attempt to remove itself from religion, the government has opened its doors to be manipulated by religion itself. For years, the IRS has possessed the structure to allow for these churches to be audited, but refrained from appointing the necessary “high-ranking” official. In 1998, the IRS reorganized, and some positions became consolidated, while others were eliminated. The high-ranking official was never appointed. In 2008, Pastor Gus Booth of Warroad Community Church began speaking on the 2008 primaries and was subsequently investigated by the IRS. Despite having clearly violated the agreement of the church’s nonprofit status, the IRS dropped its case against the parish, citing that it had not appointed the proper official to sign off on any audit.
In 2012 the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a lawsuit against the IRS, citing that it had failed the American people in a “policy of non-enforcement of the electioneering restrictions against churches and religious organizations.” The IRS eventually settled the suit and created a three-person team called the Political Activities Referral Committee (PARC), which is dedicated to investigating churches found to be in violation of the Johnson Amendment. The committee has since identified ninety-nine churches, but has audited none thus far—possibly because the IRS’s settlement doesn’t require the committee to audit these organizations, only to identify them.
While the nonreligious community is right in feeling aggrieved at the IRS’s failure to audit these churches despite having the infrastructure in place to do so, the religious right is absolutely convinced that they are being “spied” upon, with various Illuminati-themed sites and articles displaying such paranoia. It’s important to remember, once again, that churches are absolutely free to spout whatever political rhetoric they wish—even endorsing a political candidate is not illegal. Nobody will go to prison; no fines will be handed out. The only consequence churches are supposed to face is the loss of their tax-exemption.
Other religious right outlets argue if the Johnson Amendment were around in 1953 (it was added to the IRS code in 1954), Martin Luther King Jr. would have been unable to preach about the civil rights movement. However, these arguments fail to acknowledge that at no point did King endorse or oppose a political candidate. Instead he advocated for the equality of the Black community, something that white Christians vehemently opposed at the time. But for many in the religious right, the freedom to express political leanings is still not enough, and until they can freely endorse or oppose candidates for political office, they will continue to feel censored. In fact, spreading the notion that they are being muzzled only serves to further their agenda—a total integration of religion into politics.