jefferson faceWritten by Don Byrd

During his announcement naming Governor Mike Pence (R-IN) as his running mate, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump made a point of declaring that Christian voices have been muted in political debate because of IRS regulations barring tax-exempt churches from participating in campaigns. As he has promised before, he once again vowed to roll back those regulations.

He is not alone in holding this troubling view. Heading into the GOP convention, the party platform (reportedly at Trump’s urging) also calls for an end to the rule forbidding churches, as a condition of their tax-exempt status, from engaging in electioneering.

Repealing the law may at first glance appear like a way to support the freedom of religious entities, but in fact it would jeopardize an important protection for both our politics and our religion. The IRS regulation at issue properly places houses of worship on the same footing as other 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations. Prohibiting tax-exempt groups from officially campaigning helps maintain the integrity of both our taxation and our political finance systems. But as I wrote earlier this year, the rule “also happens to protect the church along the way – from being exploited by political campaigns, and from jeopardizing the health of the church with unnecessary conflict within the congregation.”

Most importantly, this rule applies only to official acts of the organization, which is why pastors should not use the pulpit of the church to endorse candidates. The rule does not prevent individuals, including ministers, from endorsing or campaigning for candidates on their own time, acting in their individual capacity and not as a representative of their church.

The rule also does not forbid churches from speaking out on the issues of the day, or holding government accountable for the harm and injustice created by their policies. 

Contrary to what we have heard from those who would end this important protection, religious voices are already powerful in political and policy discussion today, as they should be. Endorsing candidates and becoming a tool of political campaigns would not offer churches more freedom. Instead, that level of entanglement might enhance their political power, but at the expense of their prophetic power. That is not a trade any church should seek or welcome.

For more, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s Church Electioneering Resources.