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.