Written by Brad Caldwell on Sept. 20, 2015
Have you ever heard someone say, “We can’t preach on politics because of our 501c3 status”? Well, I’m unsettled to hear that a preacher “cannot” preach on something that, to me, is one of the most important things of our day. So I decided to do a bit of study on the subject, because if preachers can’t preach the truth, what’s the point of being a preacher?
Most people have probably heard the weird term, “501c3.” In short, it’s a part of the IRS tax code that specifies that tax-exempt organizations cannot support or oppose any political candidate, and cannot surpass a “lobbying ceiling amount” which is basically 20% of their expenditures.
So the question arises:
“Can 501c3 Churches Preach on Politics?”
To my reading of the tax code, it appears that indeed they can preach on politics, but they have to stop shy of supporting or opposing any individual candidate. In other words, they can preach against how it is evil for the Democrat party to support abortion, but they can’t say it’s evil to vote for Barack Obama.
Well, I think a more fundamental question arises: “Is it possible for a preacher to be faithful to God without preaching a full-orbed, unfettered message that shuns from touching neither politics nor politicians?” And of course the answer to that is a resounding, “No!”
Could John the Baptist be John the Baptist if he agreed (for a substantially greater amount of locusts and wild honey per annum!) not to point his bony finger at King Herod and reprove him for his incestuous adultery? I think not (Luke 3:7-9). Could Jesus have been Jesus if He agreed to keep the four-drachma coin from the fish’s mouth if the temple tax collectors had offered Him exemption for not speaking against the Pharisees? Never (Matthew 17:24-27)!
So how comes it that preachers are afraid, not just of commending good politicians (a near oxymoron), but of speaking in broad generalities against the evils of abortion, gay marriage, living together, or socialized medicine?
I think God has had enough. If a preacher is not willing to preach all the truth, and as Martin Luther would point out, especially that particular portion of truth which is most unpopular and most attacked at that moment, then they’re not worthy of the name, “pastor.”
“Where Did This Limitation of Free Speech Come From?”
According to Pew Research Center,
The prohibition on political campaign intervention did not become part of the Internal Revenue Code until 1954, when an amendment to section 501(c)(3) was introduced by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson during a Senate floor debate on the 1954 Internal Revenue Code. The prohibition was added to the code without hearings, testimony or comment by any tax-exempt organizations. Although there is no legislative history to indicate definitively why Johnson sought enactment of the political campaign intervention prohibition, neither is there any evidence that the prohibition was targeted at political campaign intervention by religious organizations.
I have a question. Why isn’t anyone talking about repealing this awful amendment to 501c3 so that preachers may have freedom of speech in their pulpits, while still maintaining tax-exempt status? Shouldn’t our government encourage morality by offering preachers of the Gospel tax-exempt status without twisting their arm and asking them to not prophesy at Bethel, for “it is the king’s chapel, and it is the king’s court” (Amos 7:12-14)? Any preacher worth his salt will reply just as Amos did to this governmental attempt at manipulation of his or her message:
Then answered Amos, and said to Amaziah, I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son; but Iwas an herdman, and a gatherer of sycomore fruit: And the LORD took me as I followed the flock, and the LORD said unto me, Go, prophesy unto my people Israel. Now therefore hear thou the word of the LORD: Thou sayest, Prophesy not against Israel, and drop not thy word against the house of Isaac. Therefore thus saith the LORD; Thy wife shall be an harlot in the city, and thy sons and thy daughters shall fall by the sword, and thy land shall be divided by line; and thou shalt die in a polluted land: and Israel shall surely go into captivity forth of his land.
What did Amos do when the government pressure threatened to squeeze him outside of God’s will? He doubled down and increased the heat of his message by delivering a terrifying prophesy to the king for his antichrist actions!
If you as a preacher think it’s too “political” to hope to change a Democrat’s amendment to an IRS rule, you’d better at least be prepared to do whatever it takes, including paying lots of taxes, in order to speak the truth. But if you compromise, and agree to dilute your message, I’m not impressed, and I don’t think the younger generation is, either. And I know that God is not impressed.
The Boring Legal Stuff – “What Is the Exact Language of 501c3?”
If you’re interested enough to actually read the tax code, it’s fairly short – at least 501c3 is extremely short, but it references 501h, which is longer and harder to understand. Here’s 501c3, from Cornell University Law School:
Corporations, and any community chest, fund, or foundation, organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition (but only if no part of its activities involve the provision of athletic facilities or equipment), or for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals, no part of the net earnings of which inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual, no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation (except as otherwise provided in subsection (h)), and which does 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.
The reference to 501h is rather confusing, but it basically means that tax-exempt churches cannot spend more than 20% of their budget on “lobbying or grassroots expenditures.” If they spend astronomical amounts above $500,000, there’s a sort of bracketed decrease in the percentage of expenditures that can be political, and it caps at some $1 million, if I understood it aright. So here’s 501h:
Expenditures by public charities to influence legislationIn the case of an organization to which this subsection applies, exemption from taxation under subsection (a) shall be denied because a substantial part of the activities of such organization consists of carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation, but only if such organization normally—(A)makes lobbying expenditures in excess of the lobbying ceiling amount for such organization for each taxable year, orFor purposes of this subsection—The lobbying ceiling amount for any organization for any taxable year is 150 percent of the lobbying nontaxable amount for such organization for such taxable year, determined under section 4911.The grass roots ceiling amount for any organization for any taxable year is 150 percent of the grass roots nontaxable amount for such organization for such taxable year, determined under section 4911.This subsection shall apply to any organization which has elected (in such manner and at such time as the Secretary may prescribe) to have the provisions of this subsection apply to such organization and which, for the taxable year which includes the date the election is made, is described in subsection (c)(3) and—An organization is described in this paragraph if it is described in—(D)section 170(b)(1)(A)(vi) (relating to organizations publicly supported by charitable contributions),For purposes of paragraph (3) an organization is a disqualified organization if it is—An election by an organization under this subsection shall be effective for all taxable years of such organization which—With respect to any organization for a taxable year for which—nothing in this subsection or in section 4911 shall be construed to affect the interpretation of the phrase, “no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation,” under subsection (c)(3).
Disclaimer: This is my understanding of what the tax code appears to be saying, but you are liable for your own conclusions. I disclaim liability.