Guest Post by Michael Johnson

Silent, handwringing, or sweating bullets…that’s how many church leaders spend every election season. But it doesn’t have to be this way! At least some of the handwringing over election season is caused by a common misunderstanding of the law in this area, and this misunderstanding is interfering with the Great Commission.

Like me, you’ve probably heard that churches “aren’t allowed to talk politics” and perhaps you’ve even heard the more disturbing claim that churches “can’t teach about moral issues that are being debated during the election.” Those statements are false. And, those statements are deeply problematic because they have blunted the church’s ability to be the conscience of the nation.

Though the decision of how to engage “political”/moral issues from the pulpit is ultimately up to the conscience of each church leader, we should be clear on what the law actually states! Here it is in a nutshell: U.S. law and the Internal Revenue Service do NOT prohibit churches from fulfilling the Great Commission’s command to “make disciples… teaching them to observe all that [Christ] commanded” during election season. Here are 3 basic legal reminders about politics and the pulpit:

What Churches CAN’T Do

  • Endorse or oppose candidates with tax-deductible dollars
  • Distribute materials that endorse a particular candidate or political party
  • Contribute money or make “in kind” contributions (such as resources or services), to a candidate, political party, or political action committee
  • Allow candidates to solicit funds from the congregation (from the pulpit) (Note that some legal scholars argue that even these prohibitions are unconstitutional; this section simply explains the law as set out by the IRS in Publication 1828).

What Churches CAN Do

  • Discuss doctrine as it applies to politics, legislative matters, or candidate positions
  • Encourage people to vote (including nonpartisan voter registration drives)
  • Host Candidate Forums
  • Introduce political candidates and allow them to address the congregation in their capacity as candidates
    (Give all candidates seeking the same office equal opportunity to participate and do not express support or opposition for any particular candidate)
  • Distribute answers to nonpartisan candidate questionnaires
  • Endorse or oppose non-partisan referendums
  • Make expenditures on behalf of referendums

How Trump’s Executive Order Affects This

These restrictions on churches are established by the so-called Johnson Amendment.  It can only be overturned by Congress, but President Trump did sign an executive order on May 4, 2017 that sought to reduce the potential sting of the IRS, even if a church did violate the Johnson Amendment.

The Department of Treasury was ordered not to take “any adverse action against any… house of worship” because it “speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective” in a manner that wouldn’t ordinarily be considered “participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate.”

While the practical effects remain to be seen, the Department of Treasury is to tilt all enforcement discretion in favor the religious liberty of churches.

The law allows ample room and flexibility for churches to reclaim the void which has been filled by increasingly tumultuous and divisive voices. A church has NEVER lost its tax-exempt status for engaging in political activity and Trump’s executive order instructs all discretion be used to favor the religious liberty of churches.

There’s no need for handwringing, sweating bullets, and silence. So, how do you think your church can best embrace its role as society’s conscience during the election season?
Michael Johnson is a public policy analyst, received his J.D. from Liberty University School of Law and grew up in a pastor’s home.