Christian laymen and church leaders are more aware of what they cannot do than what they can do regarding political issues. Consequently, critics say, such ignorance stymies those who are most intimately associated with the truth regarding moral issues and bear the greatest responsibility for seeing it propagated.
What has silenced many pastors in the pulpit over the past 40 years regarding issues political was a last-minute amendment to the 1954 Internal Revenue Service Tax Code revision. Lyndon B. Johnson, then a U.S. Senator from Texas, tacked on the rider barring 501(c)(3) organizations from campaigning for or against candidates vying for political office.
The amendment was passed with no debate on a voice vote. It was later speculated Johnson made the move to silence two non-profit organizations that threatened to campaign against him. It is not known if Johnson realized how far-reaching his measure would be and whom it would ultimately silence.
Regardless of intent, the code regulates speech for 501(c)(3) organizations, barring them from endorsing candidates under threat of losing their tax-exempt status. Few churches have been taken to task in the past four decades by the IRS, but the fear of big government?not the fear of God?has had a significant impact on what is preached from America’s pulpits.
There are exceptions. For example, a Buddhist temple was the site of politicking and fund-raising for Al Gore during the 2000 president election. In 1980, Ronald Reagan joined several prominent evangelical leaders on the platform at Dallas’ Reunion Arena during a political rally.
Mostly, however, mere discussion of moral and ethical issues is sometimes averted in the pulpit so as not to be seen as endorsing one candidate and rejecting the other based on the views they hold.
THE CHURCH AS PROPHET
“In days gone by the pulpit and God’s prophets have voiced concerns. ? We don’t hear these voices anymore,” said Jim Bolton, retired investment banker and First Baptist Church of Dallas member. Bolton served on the SBTC’s Texas Ethics & Religious Liberty Committee (TERLC). The role of the committee has been to relay information regarding issues of concern to SBTC churches.
Bolton noted, “When the pastor doesn’t lead, the people aren’t interested. If doing the right thing politically is not going to be proclaimed, then why should we be interested?”
There remains much that pastors and lay people can address in church without violating IRS codes. Although the code precludes endorsing candidates, the church may address issues. The church can, and should, take a stand on moral and social issues explicitly addressed in the Bible, said Keet Lewis, a representative of Heritage Alliance, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping grassroots conservative movements.
One project Lewis has nurtured is the Christian Citizenship Committee, traveling the state helping churches organize such committees which then act as conduits of information from the state and national levels to their congregations. Being politically involved, Lewis said, is part of being a good citizen. And being an informed voter “is the beginning of taking citizenship seriously.”
These committees keep congregations informed of social and cultural issues within their own communities also, Lewis said.
“We need to be salt and light. We need to clearly articulate biblical issues,” he added.
William Nix concurred, using salt and light to illustrate how Christians can preserve society. Salt, he explained is a curative while light acts to shed light on the blemish that needs treating. Voting with biblical principles in mind is only a small part of the duties of a responsible Christian citizen.
Nix, who has taught in several universities and seminaries across the country, earned a doctor of philosophy in intellectual history. Such a degree, he explained, is a study of the history of ideas within their cultural, social, and economic environment. Nix is a member and 30-year deacon at First Baptist Dallas and a former member of the TERLC.
Nix said it was only 10-12 years ago that many churches within the Dallas metroplex did exactly what Lewis is encouraging congregations to do, coordinating efforts to assemble and disseminate information of a social and political nature. “A lot of people on the basis of fear are avoiding those things,” Nix said.
FREE CHURCH & FREE STATE
Aside from losing their tax-exempt status, churches and individual members use the excuse of “separation of church and state” as a reason for not being politically involved.
The oft-recited statement was discovered in a letter from Thomas Je