To receive tax-exempt status from the IRS, religious organizations must abstain from electioneering. Is that constitutional?
Only 110 of the purported 3,000 parishioners were at the Sunday morning service of the Hope Christian Church in Maryland, despite the daring occasion. Along with 1,500 other ministers across the country, Bishop Harry Jackson was “gonna push the envelope a little bit” on politics, the choir director said.
The members of the congregation, carrying their own Bibles, drifted gradually into the odd-shaped sanctuary, wider than it was long, located in a low, sprawling office building that once served as IBM’s regional headquarters. Almost all the worshippers were women, almost all were African American, and because they were so thinly distributed among the blue chairs, the place looked practically empty to the two cameras facing the pulpit, one from Christian television, the other for a documentary by the Public Broadcasting Service. A crew member said something to an assistant pastor, who asked people to move to the center. They dutifully obeyed for the sake of appearances.
A Bible lay open on a clear-plastic lectern. An all-female choir, dressed in their own blue dresses of various styles, sang modern hymns vigorously and often off-key. An electric keyboard emitted piano sounds. A set of drums, positioned behind Plexiglas to soften the volume, kept time. Two young women in black clothing improvised dance steps while an older woman twirled two lavender flags on polls.
It was Pulpit Freedom Sunday in early October, when preachers who’ve signed up to trespass into electoral politics go well beyond the limits their churches have agreed upon when accepting tax-exempt status. Organized by the conservative movement Alliance Defending Freedom, they praise or condemn candidates. They urge parishioners to avoid this politician or that one; Barack Obama was a regular target, even in a few black churches such as Hope Christian, because of his support for gay marriage and abortion rights. Occasionally, favored politicians are even invited to a service to be anointed by the minister’s endorsement.
Some pastors tread nervously onto this forbidden ground, because they don’t want to lose their churches’ tax exemptions. But others zealously hope for just that. They are trying to provoke the Internal Revenue Service into an adverse ruling so they can challenge the constitutionality of the law, which they believe violates the First Amendment. For many years, the IRS has refrained from taking the bait, and citizen complaints against churches’s electioneering have disappeared into the agency’s bureaucratic abyss.
Bishop Jackson’s parish is located in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., but his true constituency is nationwide thanks to Republican donors who adore the anomaly of a black conservative. He does not mince words, and he delivers dramatic hyperbole. He wears glasses and a black beard cropped short. His uniform is simple but elegant: a white collar and a gold chain draped diagonally across his chest, from his right shoulder to his left side.
His roots are tangled and intriguing. His grandfather’s father was white, he explains, and his grandfather’s mother was “a very dark-skinned black woman.” His grandfather was a Gullah from coastal South Carolina, and his father was the first in the family to go to college. Jackson’s maternal grandmother was part black, part Cherokee. And he, Jackson, went to excellent schools: Williams as an undergraduate, then Harvard Business School for his MBA. For a while, he worked for Corning glass in upstate New York, then turned to religion and founded a church. He sees religion as an agent of change and of moral preservation.
“If it had not been for a free pulpit,” he declared on Pulpit Freedom Sunday a month before the 2012 presidential election, “there would not have been an abolitionist movement … It was a free pulpit in the civil rights movement that called for justice.”
And, as he might have added but did not, none of that would violate the law under the Faustian bargain that church and state have entered. In exchange for the generous public subsidy of avoiding all income and property taxes, and for its donors’s ability to deduct their contributions from their taxable income, the church limits its speech by staying out of electoral politics. That doesn’t mean it can’t take positions on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, civil rights, and poverty, unless the matter “has been raised as an issue distinguishing candidates for a given office,” according to the IRS explanation. When they apply for, and receive, tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3), religious and secular organizations alike may not “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.”
Jackson understands that perfectly well, as he told me in his study after the service. “If you just advocate the issue, that’s OK.” But as soon as you speak for or against a candidate, “evidently it’s against the law.” Getting involved in a campaign is prohibited. “That’s the boundary. And don’t even mention if you’re gonna try to do ads. So we’re just putting our toe across the line.”
But pretty far across the line. Aided by a PowerPoint slide show, which livened up Sunday worship, Jackson gave the congregation four reasons to oppose Obama. First, a healthcare program that pays for abortion, which does not value human life. “I cannot vote for someone like this.” Second, lack of support for marriage only between a man and a woman. After a long citation of scripture decrying homosexuality, Jackson denounced same-sex marriage as a profound violation of biblical teaching.
Third, “You’re not for Israel,” an odd and erroneous notion that haunted Obama throughout his presidency. “If we are against Israel, there comes attached to that the vengeance of God,” Jackson declared ominously. “So now you want to put my nation under a divine vengeance, and you think our economics are gonna get better?” He continued, “You’ve got the black community that has been the most faithful Christian community, has the highest unemployment rate of any subculture in the land, and they are foolish enough—listen to me, black Christians—you are foolish enough to vote against the God that brought you out of slavery. … Just because somebody’s skin is black you’re going to support an anti-God, anti-gospel offender. No wonder you can’t get a job.”
Cheers and applause arose, mostly from the choir—yes, he was preaching to the choir.
Then to the fourth reason to oppose the president at the polls the following month: religious liberty. “Four more years of Barack Obama will ensure an aggressive anti-Christian spirit that has currently grabbed hold of the administration and this country. Beware, my Christian friends, you should not vote for Barack Obama. We’re gonna pray now.”
“We endorse Faith Loudon for Congress in the Fourth District of Maryland,” and he gestured to her in the front row, “and we do not endorse Barack Obama for president of the United States. Would you bow your heads with me in prayer.”
With soft piano music in the background, Jackson prayed: “Our Father, our God, we thank you today, and we ask that this word, this message, especially the last five minutes, will go out as a trumpet to the nation. I thank you that cameras from several networks are here. Lord, let it go forth on the Internet, and, Lord, let it go forth on the CD.”
Jackson tries for an amalgam of what he calls righteousness and justice, by which he means religious gospel and social policies that address the plight of the less powerful. “Something is wrong in America,” he announced in his sermon, when immigrant families can be separated by deportation, when Obama creates “pressure on Hispanics and first-generation African immigrants so he can look like a hero when he lifts the pressure that he created. Something ain’t right in America.”
He did not go quite as far as to endorse Romney. Was it Romney’s Mormonism or the justice issue? “It’s the justice issue,” he told me later. “If we keep going down that road that we only vote righteous, righteous, righteous, then we’re like a bird trying to fly with one wing. You never get to a true—in my view, humble opinion—representation of the Christian ethos in our generation.”
His congressional candidate, who was white, was trounced by the black incumbent, Donna Edwards. His nemesis, Obama, rode easily to victory for the second time. And in the end, Jackson endorsed Romney, but not in church: in a television studio, where the First Amendment protected him.
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