NASHVILLE, Tenn.(BP)– Let’s play “Jeopardy”! Remember to phrase your answer in the form of a question.
Clue: George Bush, John Kerry, Ralph Nader.
Answer: Can a pastor or a church endorse a particular candidate for president?
Clue: Federal Marriage Amendment, stem cell research, school vouchers.
Answer: Can a pastor or a church endorse a particular position on legislative issues?
Of course the answers above only raise more questions and the real answers may be the difference between fulfilling a biblical calling and finding yourself squarely in the legal crosshairs of the Internal Revenue Service. Can pastors and churches comment on political issues? Well, yes … and no.
Every election year thousands of churches are frozen in inaction because they are deathly afraid the federal government is going to swoop into their church and take away their tax-exempt status. Their perspective: It’s better to do nothing than to risk a tete-a-tete with the IRS. With a little research and help from the iVoteValues.com website (www.ivotevalues.com) sponsored by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Christians can find clarity in the murky waters of the electoral and political processes.
First, let me say that it is legal and perfectly proper for Christians to be involved in the processes of our government, despite the copious amounts of misinformation about “church-state” issues communicated by the mainstream media and liberal groups. God ordained government and expects us to be a part of the process. “Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God” (Romans 13:1, HCSB).
We are called by Christ to be “salt” and “light” in our world. Something can’t be “salted” or “lit” unless there is actual physical application of the salt or light. So how do we fulfill our biblical mandates without compromising our nonprofit designations? Below are a few key points, but there is a comprehensive and understandable list at the www.ivotevalues.com site. Look in the right-hand column for the large heading, “Know Your Rights.” It’ll explain everything.
1. Churches, as tax-exempt organizations, cannot be involved in partisan politics. Partisan is the operative word. Yet there is nothing in the U.S. tax code, in federal election law or the Bible that prohibits churches from being involved in the civic processes of our nation.
2. The rules for all tax-exempt organizations are simple: No endorsing of candidates. No favoring of one candidate over another. Any outreach for voter awareness or voter registration must be broad-based; in other words, you have to make your efforts available to anyone who wants to participate. And when you are addressing the issues, you need to address a wide range of issues.
3. Churches can host nonpartisan voter registration drives as long as they allow anyone who wants to register to vote to register and those involved in the drive don’t encourage registering so individuals can vote for candidate X over candidate Y.
4. Churches can, at their discretion, host candidate forums for the benefit of the community when all candidates are invited to attend. The church property is not off-limits to this kind of “voter education activity,” as the IRS calls it. These activities are permissible within the tax guidelines for 501(c)(3) organizations.
Our faith in Christ is to salt all that we do. If a person’s relationship with Jesus doesn’t impact what he says, how he acts and what he thinks, he might need to revisit his relationship with Him (1 Peter 4:11). If our faith directs our behavior every day of the week, should it not then direct our decisions when it comes to what candidates we are supporting? That’s called values-based voting.
Values-based voting requires taking stock of your own values as derived from the Word of God and then examining the convictions of the candidates. Then, vote with purpose for those candidates whose positions square with your scripturally informed values.
Understand that the religious liberty you have in our country is a privilege for which our forefathers fought. Failing to responsibly exercise that liberty is a disservice to our heritage and holds grave consequences for our posterity.
James T. Draper Jr. is president of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.