Preaching Politics

I have recently found myself fielding questions about what people tend to refer to as “preaching politics.” These queries do not have a simple answer but, given the fact that we will all be hearing more and more about the upcoming 2020 elections, it is worth exploring the nature of political discourse in American religious institutions.

First of all, there is no criminal or civil code that governs the relationship between religious institutions and political campaigns. It has instead been regulated by the Tax Code since 1954. According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), organizations which are exempt from paying federal taxes are prohibited from advocating for or against a specific candidate or party. “501(c) (3)” groups have to meet a certain criteria in order to qualify for this exemption.  Thus, if a religious organization is not a designated 501c3, it is not restricted from any form of political involvement.

The second thing to know is that the code specifically prohibits support of specific candidates.  It does not restrict advocacy on issues. Thus, many churches issue statements demonstrating their support for certain types of legislation, including gun control, abortion, and the environment. As they may be significant issues for churchgoers, churches are allowed to host political forums as long as both sides of a debated issue are represented and no candidate is allowed to ask for votes.

According to the Pew Research Center’s “Preaching Politics from the Pulpit,” (2012), a good example of how a church can violate the tax code occurred when, “Four days before the 1992 presidential election, the Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., placed a full-page advertisement in USA Today and The Washington Times. The ad began with the heading: ‘Christians Beware: Do not put the economy ahead of the Ten Commandments.’ The ad cited biblical passages and stated that Gov. Bill Clinton supported abortion on demand, homosexuality and the distribution of condoms to teenagers in public schools. The ad concluded with the question: ‘How then can we vote for Bill Clinton?’ At the bottom of the ad, in fine print, the following notice appeared: ’This advertisement was co-sponsored by The Church at Pierce Creek, Daniel J. Little, Senior Pastor, and by churches and concerned Christians nationwide. Tax-deductible donations for this advertisement gladly accepted.”

Clergy persons may, like other individual citizens, endorse candidates in their own name, but they may not do so in the name of a congregation or religious institution. This, as you might guess, is a fine line. Other “blurry” situations include when a religious leader suggests that his followers vote for “the pro blank” candidate. If there are only two candidates and one is “pro” and the other “con” on that particular issue, it is clear which way the church leader is suggesting people vote, although s/he may not have named a specific candidate.

The Episcopal Church has an Office of Government Relations which identifies and advocates for the denomination’s positions on issues like immigration, racism, creation care, poverty, and human rights. There is a broad spectrum of both theological and political belief among Episcopalians and civil discussion of the issues that significantly influence our lives is encouraged. The Episcopal Church determines our positions based on our primary vocation of following the Way of Jesus.

Preaching becomes part of political discourse when the teachings of scripture, specifically the words of Jesus, intersect with questions about how we, as his followers, should govern ourselves. To be clear, Episcopal clergy persons do not “preach politics.” We preach the gospel.  Jesus frequently commented on the political issues of his own time, including citizenship, taxation, and, most importantly, the need for the powerful to care for the disenfranchised. We believe it is important to assess Jesus’s statements and apply them to our current social, economic, and educational concerns. We do this not by finding biblical quotations that support already existing views, but by reading, studying, and praying about our holy scriptures.

Here is a list of Episcopal justice groups and ministries, as well as statements from various church leaders related to current political issues:

 Anglican Peace and Justice Network: o International.
o St. Mary’s justice Ministries featured in first online newsletter:  Episcopal Church News (ENS): o Subscribe to keep up with the Episcopal Church activities and positions nationwide.  Episcopal Office of Government Relations: o “The Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations carries out advocacy on public
policy issues where the General Convention has passed resolutions . . [that] aim to
interpret how governments and international institutions can strive for justice and
respect the human dignity of every human being.”
o Provides regular action alerts and information posts to those who subscribe.  Episcopal Public Policy Network: o “A network of Episcopalians across the country dedicated to carrying out the Baptismal
Covenant call to ‘strive for justice and peace’ through the active ministry of public policy
o Advices the Episcopal Office of Government Affairs and the Presiding Bishop on public
policy and political (not partisan) positions of the church.
o Areas of particular interest: Migration, refugees, & immigration; human rights and
peacebuilding; ending poverty; racial reconciliation; and creation care.  Episcopal Peace Fellowship: o Founded as Episcopal Peace Fellowship on Armistice Day, November 11, 1939.
o Open to lay and clergy.
o San Francisco Chapter  Sister Pamela Clare, Convener  o Individuals can subscribe to receive period updates.
Episcopal Diocese of California (DioCal)  DioCal News and Events: (Individuals can subscribe.)
o Weekly newsletter contains news, public positions, and actions of the Diocese of
California, joint positions of all six California Episcopal diocese, and the Episcopal
o Joint California bishops’ statements, as well as Bishop Marc’s positions are published
here.  Episcopal Public Policy Network of California (EPPNCA)
o Lay and clerical representatives of the six Episcopal dioceses in the State of California
consider and draft policy positions and actions on a variety of public and justice issues.
o No webpage, as all statements and positions are issued through the respective dioceses.
o All six bishops must agree upon a statement before it is issued by any of them. (This
does not prevent any Bishop or diocese from issuing individual statements and positions
on their own initiative.)
o St. Mary’s parishioner David Crosson serves as one of five representatives of the Diocese
of California.
Specific Causes and Actions  Death Penalty
o Statement of bishops of six Episcopal diocese of California supporting moratorium on
the death penalty in California:  Gun Violence, Racism, and Christian Nationalism
o Bishops United Against Gun Violence:  Nearly 100 Episcopal bishops organized to take positions and create strategies to
end gun violence and to address its systemic causes.  Issues range from anti-Semitism, Christian white-nationalism and other root causes.  Includes online liturgical resources for times of mass killings.
o Bishops United Against Gun Violence Statement on Christian Nationalism &
Systematic Racism: o Bishop Marc Andrus’ statement on gun violence, March 6, 2018:

Leave a Reply