Even as polls show Americans broadly oppose electioneering from the pulpit, a new report by a group of faith leaders working closely with Capitol Hill argues for ending the decades-old ban on explicit clergy endorsements. The report being given Wednesday to Sen. Charles E. Grassley — the Iowa Republican whose office for years has been probing potential abuses by tax-exempt groups — comes as the ban has become a culture-war flashpoint.
More than 1,100 mostly conservative Christian pastors for the past few springs have been explicitly preaching politics — they call the annual event “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” — in an effort to lure the Internal Revenue Service into a court showdown. Meanwhile, groups that favor a strong church-state separation are going to court to demand that the IRS more aggressively enforce the ban that dates to 1954.
The report by officials of major denominations (including the Southern Baptist Convention and Assemblies of God) and large nonprofit organizations (including the Crusade for Christ and Esperanza, one of the country’s biggest Latino evangelical groups) argues that the ban chills free speech and violates the culture of people who see the weaving of faith and political expression as essential to their religious practice.
Forty-two percent of black Protestants and 37 percent of white evangelical Protestants say houses of worship should endorse candidates, according to the Pew Research Center. Among Americans overall, that figure has been in the 20s for a decade.
The report focuses on faith groups but would apply to secular 501c3 nonprofit organizations as well.
Some members of the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations said lifting the ban was more about principles than pragmatism.
“I think there are some pockets of very conservative folks or very liberal folks who will use this in a partisan way. But when you become more specific [about candidates] you cut off a big portion of your congregation, and not a lot of religious leaders want to do that,” said Joel Hunter, leader of the Florida megachurch Northland and a sometime adviser to President Obama. “The issue is: Do they have the freedom to do it? For me it’s a First Amendment issue, a religious-freedom issue.” Hunter says he preaches on environmental and poverty issues and policies but not specific candidates.
Experts and even leaders of the commission agreed with Hunter that most clergy wouldn’t want to endorse from the pulpit — not because of the IRS but out of fear of alienating members at a time when young Americans in particular are fed up with the merger of partisan politics and religion. But, they say, the IRS’s spotty enforcement — the IRS doesn’t go after the Pulpit Freedom Sunday clergy, for example — and the complex tax language leaves many houses of worship afraid of even legal speech about particular measures or policies.
It’s unclear what will happen to the report, which was compiled by 14 Christian leaders, many of whom have worked in the past with Grassley on financial accountability issues.
The commission was advised by a much more religiously and politically diverse group of 66 faith leaders, a subset of which wrote an opposition paper arguing that the ban “has served to protect houses of worship in America from government regulation and from divisive partisan politics dividing the church communities.”
The group of 66 included leaders from all major branches of Judaism, major Muslim and Hindu groups as well as Methodists and Mormons, among others. It wasn’t clear how many of the 66 backed the proposal, but the commission chairman, Michael Batts, said support was “strong.”
A spokeswoman for Grassley said Tuesday that the senator “is weighing next steps.”
The report follows a controversial blowup over how the IRS chooses which groups to target for enforcement, and many are seeking change at the IRS. It also comes as Congress is seeking new revenue and potential tax code changes that would affect nonprofit organizations.
Efforts to drop the ban have been proposed before and failed.
The report also argues that the ban on the use of tax-deductible funds for political purposes — such as church coffers going to a campaign — should be maintained.
“We think this [report] would allow for respect without creating a monster — that churches could become in essence [political action committees],” said Batts, a leading expert on accounting for faith-based nonprofit organizations. “If they had money and could disburse it for political activities, that would be problematic, but this is just speech — saying what you believe.”
The report follows years of work by Grassley’s office and evangelical leaders on the issue of financial accountability.
A decade ago, Grassley began investigating whether several high-profile television ministries were violating the law by using tithes for things such as for-profit businesses, planes and jewelry. His office disappointed the most enthusiastic reformers in 2011 when it found no wrongdoing and asked a well-established council of evangelical oversight experts to make recommendations for self-governance.
That group, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, created the new commission. In December it made recommendations on the broad topic of financial accountability that Congress has not acted on. Members then turned to the separate issue of religious speech, which is the topic of the new report.
Some critics say it lacks credibility.
“This whole thing has a fox-guarding-the-henhouse feel to it and always has,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister who heads the group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Lynn said his group has brought multiple examples to the IRS of clergy preaching against votes for President Obama, and he said nothing was ever done.
Experts on religion in the United States say that even as Americans are becoming more turned off by partisan politics in religion, they are becoming more and more likely to see their faith as driving them to policy activism.
But there remains disagreement in the faith community about explicit endorsements. The commission is largely made up of conservative evangelicals, but a more liberal group called the Bright Lines Project also is looking into changes at the IRS and also proposed an exemption for political speech at houses of worship under certain circumstances.