"When thy cup runneth over, looketh out!"
Whether it is reaching the pinnacle of one's ambitions and dreams or seeing one's hard work finally paying off, success can certainly bring a feeling of elation. Sometimes, however, victories are so joyous that downsides become blindsides. On May 4, President Trump either intentionally or unintentionally opened another can of worms with noble-sounding purpose, but with consequences galore. This time his exclusive candy store has produced the, "Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty."
Like motherhood and apple pie, happy surface skimmers will see nothing but fairness and grandness in anything that alleges freedom and liberty. But, snags lurk under that surface. Big ones.
Churches have always been tax-exempt and donations to them tax-deductible. Whether they bother to apply for 501(c)3 nonprofit status or not, churches are expected to abide by those section rules in the U.S. Tax Code. In 1954, as a senator, Lyndon Johnson oversaw amending the restrictions section for 501(c)3 nonprofits so they may 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." For 63 years this Johnson Amendment has stuck in the craws of some pastors wanting to preach about the high or low qualities of certain political candidates.
Organizations like the "Alliance Defending Freedom" have long been trying to free up freedom of speech in the pulpit, and they provide extensive information on the do's and don'ts of church nonprofit status. Their guidebook points out that, "The church may engage in both types of lobbying [direct and grassroots] ... encourage its members or the general public to support or oppose legislation, and support other organizations with their lobbying efforts, as long as the lobbying constitutes an insubstantial part of the church's overall activities and budget."
Churches may also discuss issues and candidate positions, but these should be neutral statements. Pastors can freely express their personal opinions on political candidates or issues as long as they do not do so as a representative of their church. The alliance points out that churches and pastors also, "may speak on public, social, and moral issues or the actions of government officials in office, as long as [the officials] are not also candidates at the time."
In January, House Resolution 172 was introduced in the House of Representatives to repeal the Johnson amendment. On Feb. 1, House Resolution 781, the "Free Speech Fairness Act," was introduced. A day later and less than two weeks after he became president, Trump vowed at the National Prayer Breakfast to "totally destroy" the Johnson law, a pledge he had also used during his campaign.
Johnson supposedly was angry that a nonprofit was supporting his opponent so he put forth his amendment to limit partisan endorsements by tax-exempt entities. Ironically, now President Trump is currying favor for partisan behavior in pulpits, which will spread throughout the entire nonprofit spectrum to thousands of organizations. He needs to watch what he wishes for. This sweeping move could come back to bite him and all of us.
The question for nonprofits and churches boils down to, "Is endorsing candidates really worth it?" Not all pastors or charities want this so-called freedom, probably realizing the road to hell is paved, slick, and runs through Politicsland. Mixing church and state has been rough, muddy and murky since the birth of this country, and a lot of the problems lead back to that old root demon, money. "Tax free" means lost tax money. Opposition to pulpit freedom rests in part on the belief that if you're going to be absolved from paying taxes, you should not get to play politics -- it's pay to play, in other words.
Undisclosed tax-deductible donations to churches or any other nonprofits can find their way into partisan politics, thereby becoming unreported dark subsidies to politicians. Charitable organizations need to use their funds for good, not to advertise, champion, influence, or defend themselves in political arenas.
Another sticking point that needs examination is the unequal tax reporting treatment of nonprofits. The IRS says, "Because churches and certain other religious organizations are not required to file an annual return or notice with the IRS, they are not subject to automatic revocation of exemption for failure to file."
We are a seriously divided nation. Will turning loose another partisan free-for-all help heal our differences structurally or spiritually? Pandering politics instead of equal treatment under the law is not the path we should be taking.
Commentary on 05/30/2017
Print Headline: Bully pulpits