Every election year thousands of churches are frozen into 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: Better to do nothing than risk the loss of our 501(c)(3) status. Here's good news: You can safely keep your tax-exempt status and still speak to the issues that are destroying families across our nation. Here's the even better news: It is legal and it's perfectly proper.
The line is very clear. A church and its leadership can be fully obedient to the scriptural command to be "salt" and "light" and come nowhere near the line stipulated in the federal tax code.
The bottom line: 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 — we just have to make sure the playing field is level. In fact, just the opposite is true. Our faith tradition does not proscribe the segregation of our faith from our everyday lives, including politics. And the U.S. Constitution guarantees all Americans the freedom of speech, even people of faith.
The rules for all tax-exempt organizations are simple: No endorsing candidates. No favoring 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.
That's it. There is nothing to be concerned about. The law is on your side, despite what some fanatical state-church separationists would like you to believe.
Each election year many churches decide to act as if the nation wasn't in the middle of a presidential campaign. They take their lead from the ostrich with his head in the sand approach. Not surprisingly, many in their congregations follow their pastor's lead and fail to see the connection between their faith and their role as citizens. As a consequence, many people of faith fail to see the importance of registering to vote and voting. As a pastor and a church leader, you have a scriptural obligation to at least encourage members of your congregation to be aware of the candidates' positions and to get involved in the democratic process.
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. If they chose, churches can distribute a compilation of candidates' responses to questions on the issues. The compilation, often called a voters' guide, should contain no editorial opinion, no bias in the reporting of the candidates' answers or in the questions posed, and cover a wide range of issues.
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 these kinds of "voter education activity," as the IRS calls it. These activities are permissible within the tax guidelines for 501(c)(3) organizations.
Beware those who come out of the woodwork at election time with letters that drip with hollow sincerity and warn the IRS is watching you and may send its agents to storm your offices to revoke your tax-exempt status. Don't allow them to scare you into submission. They have an agenda — they want Bible-believing Americans out of the electoral process.
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.
First, 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. Next, vote with purpose for those candidates whose positions square with your Scripturally informed values.
In the United States of America, you have a choice. You have the right to sit at home on Election Day, or you can exercise your right to vote. As a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, you have a choice as well. You can turn your back on society and keep the Light of the Gospel to yourself, or you can stand up and step out and engage the culture with the Truth, especially in the voting booth. It's your decision.
iVoteValues.com is a collaborative effort of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and related groups to help churches and individuals better understand their rights under the law. The iVoteValues.com effort encourages voters to be aware of the issues, register to vote, and then vote. The Web site and related material are excellent resources for churches that appreciate the role they can play in the civic affairs of our nation.