“For nearly 70 years, federal law has barred churches from directly involving themselves in political campaigns, but the IRS has largely abdicated its enforcement responsibilities as churches have become more brazen about publicly backing candidates,” report Jeremy Schwartz and Jessica Priest of the Texas Tribune, in a story co-published with ProPublica.
The two news organizations say they reviewed “dozens” of church services posted online, and “Many readers shared sermons
with us.” They say they found 18 examples “over the past two years that appeared to violate the Johnson Amendment, a measure named after its author, former President Lyndon B. Johnson [when he was Senate majority leader]. Some pastors have gone so far as to paint candidates they oppose as demonic.”
|Screenshot of video from Texas Tribune
That’s what Dallas-area pastor Brandon Burden called the Frisco City Council in a sermon last year, also saying, “I got a candidate that God wants to win. I got a mayor that God wants to unseat. God wants to undo. God wants to shift the balance of power in our city. And I have jurisdiction over that this morning.” The story also cites examples from Alaska, California and New Mexico.
limits the charitable and religious tax exemption to organizations that do “not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” It allows churches to host political speakers and discuss political issues, “but because donations to churches are tax-deductible and because churches don’t have to file financial disclosures with the IRS, without such a rule donors seeking to influence elections could go undetected, said Andrew Seidel, vice president of strategic communications for the advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State
,” Priest and Schwartz report. Seidel told them, “If you pair the ability to wade into partisan politics with a total absence of financial oversight and transparency, you’re essentially creating super PACs that are black holes.”
The Internal Revenue Service declined comment, but there is only one publicly known example of it revoking a church’s tax exemption, Schwartz and Priest report: A New York church ran newspaper ads attacking Bill Clinton days before his 1992 election, starting “a long legal battle that ended with a U.S. appeals court siding with the federal agency. . . . The Congressional Research Service said in 2012 that a second church had lost its tax-exempt status, but that its identity “is not clear.”
In a country that is already starkly divided on many issues, partisan church rhetoric may increase the divide. Andrew Whitehead, a sociologist at the University of Indiana-Purdue, who studies Christian nationalism, told Schwartz and Priest, “It creates hurdles for a healthy, functioning, pluralistic democratic society . . . It’s really hard to overcome.”