Steve Klingaman

Steve Klingaman
Minneapolis, Minnesota,
January 01
Steve Klingaman is a nonprofit development consultant and nonfiction writer specializing in personal finance and public policy. His music reviews can be found at

Editor’s Pick
OCTOBER 6, 2011 8:28AM

Politics and the Pulpit

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James Garlow 

The Rev. James Garlow knows how you should vote.


More than 100 conservative pastors took to the pulpit for Pulpit Freedom Sunday last weekend, where they issued fire and brimstone exhortations sparked by politics. In a move designed to provoke the Internal Revenue Service into action, activist clergymen and women (if there are any women) organized by the hardcore conservative Alliance Defense Fund fully intended to skirt or cross the line between religious and political speech from the pulpit.

            But just where is the line?  According to IRS regulations, the line is no line in the sand, more serpentine calligraphy in quicksand.  In this prohibition, context is everything, and, I’ll warn you, it’s complicated.

            In general, according to the IRS, “section 501(c)(3) organizations must avoid any issue advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention.”  But when is that?  The IRS provides a set of guidelines in IRS Revenue Ruling 2007-14 purportedly designed to solve the riddle.  They are:

·      Whether the statement identifies one or more candidates for a given public office;

·      Whether the statement expresses approval or disapproval for one or more candidates’ positions and/or actions;

·      Whether the statement is delivered close in time to the election;

·      Whether the statement makes reference to voting or an election;

·      Whether the issue addressed in the communication has been raised as an issue distinguishing candidates for a given office;

·      Whether the communication is part of an ongoing series of communications by the organization on the same issue that are made independent of the timing of any election; and

·      Whether the timing of the communication and identification of the candidate are related to a non-electoral event such as a scheduled vote on specific legislation by an officeholder who also happens to be a candidate for public office.

Simple yet?

Timing Is Everything

First, when the speech occurs plays a big part in determining whether the message is overtly political.  If no election is on the horizon, the usual presumption is that the speech is more likely to fall on the side of issues advocacy.  But if you count the primary season, as we must, campaign season is pretty much all the time.  Certainly the present would qualify.  Or would it? The IRS isn’t saying.  And that’s partly what pisses off religious activists like The Rev. James Garlow, senior pastor at Skyline Church in LaMesa, California.  He intends to unload from the pulpit this Sunday and send his taped remarks to the IRS.

It’s Not What you Say It’s Where You Stand

It turns out, where Rev. Garlow is standing when he makes his political remarks matters.   The IRS says in Situation 3 of the Revenue Ruling that a nonprofit official has a right to a private opinion, but if that official utters the opinion in the course of what the IRS calls “official functions,” such as standing at the pulpit, it’s pretty clear the speech could  be interpreted as political interference if the content so qualifies.  If the same pastor stands up at a candidate’s press conference and endorses him, not identifying himself as Pastor So-and-So, the identical message could be interpreted as private speech despite the public nature of the utterance.

            Political activists like Garlow want to interpret the whole shebang as a First Amendment issue, but it isn’t really. The reason they suffer the prohibition—introduced by a young Senator Lyndon Johnson in 1954, by the way—is that the tax benefits they enjoy allow their parishioners (say, David Koch) to make tax-deductible contributions to further the exempt purposes of the church.  But it wouldn’t be so fair to grant Mr. Koch a fat tax deduction so he could fight a candidate who wanted to fight discrimination against gays, say. Doesn’t that make sense?

            This whole candidate thing gets a little tricky.  What if a priest doesn’t name a candidate by name but rails against a policy closely associated with one candidate, exhorting the flock to vote en masse, in a two-candidate race at a time close to an election?  That, according to IRS Revenue Ruling 2007-14, Situation 16, would be prohibited speech as a situation in which an officer of an organization “referred to the upcoming election [italics mine] after stating a position on an issue that is a prominent issue in a campaign that distinguishes the candidates.”

            James Garlow, for one, seems to get this.  He said this week in a New York Times article by Sandy Huffaker, “I will, in effect, oppose several candidates and—de facto—endorse others.  So he is heading across that serpentine line—and he can’t get there fast enough for some experts. Marcus Owens, former head of the Exempt Organizations Division of the IRS is one of the nation’s foremost experts on tax law as it pertains to nonprofits.  I have heard him speak on a couple of occasions and his integrity and passion for the well being of the nonprofit sector was as refreshing as it was well-informed.  As an attorney in private practice representing a group of Ohio churches that oppose the political grandstanding of the fundamentalists, Owens seems to have concluded that the IRS is dragging its feet big-time when it comes to enforcement.

            Why?  Administrative fear of a political backlash is my guess.  My bet is Owens has amassed a portfolio of clear violations of the political speech prohibition and the IRS has a full set, too.  But going after evangelical churches doesn’t sit well with a certain, shall we say well-connected group of legislators who would be only too happy to pass the next IRS budget with religious enforcement X’ed out.  Regardless of where it’s standing, money talks, and money talks big in evangelical circles.

            The result is churches openly flouting the law while the rationale for tax exemption is eroded in the minds of general public.  That ideological hard-liners—who already have the hide-the-puppet mechanism of 501(c)4s to do their political bidding—feel emboldened to destroy the integrity of the charitable sector as well is, well, unconscionable.  The level of entitlement boggles a bit.  Those who do not feed the hungry, heal the sick, or educate the young have stretched charitable privileges under the tax code far beyond the silly-putty point.  But it is under the banner of education, such as “voter education,” that their propaganda is heard in the walled confines of propagandistic churches.  This while IRS regulations clearly state that no level of bias is permitted in 501(c)3 voter education initiatives.

            Politico-pastors like Garlow want you to believe that this is a murky area, but it doesn’t have to be.  The prohibition is well understood and enforced in countries like the U.K.  In the U.S. it is only murky because IRS regulations are mealy-mouthed and full of unnecessary contextual nuance. It’s a shell game with such peas as gay marriage and abortion, even immigration and gun rights, in play. 

            Some writers, including the New York Times’ Sandy Huffaker, who wrote that the prohibition against electioneering on the part of churches "may have been an unintended consequence," have implied that unintended consequences have unnecessarily muzzled the churches so that, were they in days of slavery they would be muzzled to speak out against it. Nothing could be further from the truth.  (Never mind the fact that in the days of slavery many churches didn’t bother.)  Pastors remain free to speak out against gay marriage.  They just can’t tell you in the next breath to vote for the guy who is against it—or for the guy who is for it.  The pastor can tell you how wrong gay marriage is on the day before the election, even if one of the candidates is strongly associated with a pro-marriage position; they just can’t tell you to vote, or how to vote.  And if they want to tell you who to vote for, they can go out as private citizens and form a PAC or a 501(c)4 and tell the world exactly who to vote for.  They just can’t offer a charitable tax deduction to their backers—and they can’t use the bully pulpit while they wear that hat.

            Not simple.  Not cut and dried.  But the most egregious examples of religious electioneering are certainly enforceable, and worthy of attention in an era of widespread, blatant abuse of the charitable exemption.


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Steve, I couldn't agree more. But I wonder if the administration, which has yet to indict a SINGLE Wall Streeter for clipping the American people to the tune of a trillion or two, will have the juevos, as you point out.

Obama has reinvented - no, refined! - triangulation.
I apologize in advance for this bit of tangential thinking, but I support removing the all places of worship form nonprofit status and tax them as an association, like a country club. Many churches using the weekly collection (now modernized to automatic debits) to fund everything from sports, entertainment, exercise rooms, etc., for their members, all tax deductible gifts to church members. This is unfair.
Steve, as the right well knows and has mastered - the great unwashed roam intentionally free of critical thinking skills~ if not for the self interest of these nut job bible bangers the right would have no base.

For a buck these creeps would lead their sheep of a cliff or ....or to the ballot box.

thanks for the bit!
Time being short and valuable, I didn't read your piece in its entirety, but the critical lead suggests that your ire is based on the clerics being conservative.

Tax exemptions for religious organizations is fundamentally incorrect, but if you question it through the prism of your own peculiar political bias, it completely discredits your argument.
Great article and I agree that politicking from the pulpit is an affront to those of us who wish to be keep politics and the worship of God somewhat separate. I realize that churches have had a love-hate relationship with politics and especially their choices of candidates throughout this nation’s history. There is a fine line and it does get under peoples skin. Personally, I do believe that do the conservative right appears to rule over much of the Christian airwaves, at times with an iron rod. What should happen and I see very little of if any is that there should be a fair and balanced approach to religious organizations expression of their views. I know of at least one Texas organization that has taken over some specific timeslots over certain Southern US Christian airwaves for several hours per day-5 days per week. And all they do is bash the left and appear to be politically brainwashing folks more than being fair and balanced. I have argued about this in some of my posts on my webpage’s. But, we have come to a time when one political party cannot be everything for everybody. And to their fault, much of the traditional media along with the two main political parties appear to favor maintaining the status quo. I think what is needed is for religious organizations to be a little more open minded and tolerant of others. In concluding I don't think we should take away people’s rights to speak out -but- that there should be a more fair and balanced approach to what we see, hear and read over the media. I don't want to see pastors getting gagged over what they can and cannot say but, I would like to see a deeper scrutiny of who can get airtime and -a limit on the amount- of politicking -time- that goes on over a 24 hour period of time on Christian Airwaves!!
Best regards,
John R. Hernandez, Jr.
Yes they should qualify and so should charities. If you don't like what they have to say, don't attend their churches and debate, if you choose, with those who do. Trying to regulate - via taxation - is not a liberal act. It is a soft, well-meant I'm sure, type of tyranny. And, frankly, it is not at all liberal.
Gordon, thanks for the comic relief (plus attitude!) Peculiar indeed.

Barbara Joanne, You must be kidding. The charitable organization tax exemption is tyranny? It's a contract. Tax exemption for contributions and other organizational transactions in exchange for an exclusive devotion to charitable works--as opposed to politics. What's tyrannical about that? Churches aren't compelled to register as 501(c)3s.
Mr. Hernandez, no one is holding a gun to your head and making you attend church. If you don't like what they offer, don't go.

And as Gordon has pointed out - you ain't calling for "liberal" preachers to have their churches declared "for profit" organizations.

Working either on removing the non-profit status from charities? Nah, didn't think so.

We have free speech in America - an attempt to shut these people up is really rather despicable - although, as usual with the left, probably well- (or thought to be so) meaning.

Ah the "liberality".
Maybe I misunderstood you. I thought you wanted to REMOVE such exemptions if churches engage in political talk. Have I misunderstood?
the idea - and I believe that it came about during, and for political reasons, the Johnson administration, that a church (or other religious organization) must refrain from political talk in order to be tax-exempt, is what I see as tyrannical. The government has no business telling people in churches or other religious institutions what they can and cannot talk about (unless we're talking sedition here). And I don't see why they should lose a tax exemption because they choose to talk about issues. People don't practice religion in a vaccum and at least they don't ask for government funding (and if they do or did it should be denied) to practice their propaganda. Unlike, for example, the schools or organizations such as Planned Parenthood.
If you don't like the Koch brothers giving money to churches that talk against something you favour, fight them with your own contributions to organizations that advocate for your causes.

And, by the way, if most of you think that charities - many of which I favour - are not political, think again. (And I recognize the advocacy argument, but people can figure out for themselves whether to listen to that advocacy.) Look at organizations like the American Cancer Society. It does great work, sure, but if you don't think they have a political stance on issues involving research funds from government or tobacco taxes and things like that, you're being, I suggest, naive.

Fight speech with speech. Fight money with money. And ole Lyndon was decidedly illiberal with this move.
Barbara Joanne, You are missing the distinction between issues advocacy and electioneering. Perhaps read the links provided before getting your confusion confused.
And I assume you'll be working on Planned Parenthood's tax-exempt and non-profit status while you're at it. But they don't advocate anything politically - RIGHT!
Yep, babs and frank would make an ideal marriage - both are tone deaf. After being informed of blog-whoring, less than 24 hours ago, nearly 50% of this post is babs.

Both love the sound of their own voices. Can you see the two of them fighting for listening time?

As a progressive pastor, I've come to the reluctant conclusion that Garlow (ugh) is in some ways right.

Two illustrations:

1) Incumbents. While Obama is not in a primary fight, he could reasonably be construed as running now for re-election. If he decides to declare war on some completely undeserving nation that poses no threat to the U.S. (I know - what prez would do something like that?), I need to be free to state very clearly that his action is wrong - even if the election is next Tuesday. If a candidate is free to proclaim his faith as a qualification for running, all the people of that faith need to be free to proclaim what they believe being an adherent really means, in national affairs as well as in more parochial details.

2) Many ballot questions are social-justice issues. A pervasive recent example is immigration reform and its humanitarian implications; access to medical care is another. In my own state not too many years ago, a proposed amendment to the state constitution was intended to deny protections of the law to gays and lesbians. (It passed and was eventually declared unconstitutional.) On such issues and many others, the church must be a prophetic voice, and never is that more important than when a vote is approaching.

We can't assume that the exemption protects only conservative evangelicals. It protects every non-profit body that can see and say, "This is wrong. It cannot be allowed to stand."

Not allowing political speech from the pulpit hardly silences it. All of Jim Garlow's parishioners know how he's going to vote, whether or not he announces that this Sunday. All of the supporters of Planned Parenthood know that its executives will vote to support abortion rights. The difference between the provision-of-service arms and the political-advocacy arms is invisible to everyone but the IRS and those waiting to pounce.

By all means, remove the tax exemptions on contributions that go toward pastors' salaries. By all means, more carefully police the way exempt contributions are spent (although they're regulated differently than most people imagine anyway). But at a time when government-funded services are shrinking, don't slap a punitive tax on our food banks, our preschools, our elder-care programs, or any of our other helping ministries. That is to inflict partisan nastiness on the least powerful of those among us.
The whole not for profit/tax exempt status and loophole for "churches" needs to be revised and discontinued. Any donations that are used for charitable purposes can be filed as cost of running the business. Tax evasion on religious grounds via the legal code has created a system of inequality between evangelical or conservatives not needing to meet the same standards of business, education and childcare that the rest of us tax payers must abide by. So, let them pay taxes, they can say whatever they want in church.
Hmm, the churches advocating rendering unto themselves what it Caesar's. Who'd have thunk it?
I’ve never liked, nor seen a valid reason, for churches being exempted from taxes, so obviously I think the exemption should be ended. We have several evangelical churches in our area…and the pastors of those “churches” live in multi-million dollar mansions in the finest areas and drive to-of-the-line Mercedes.

Get rid of the exemptions altogether—and allow religion or superstition to function on its own.

Real charity institutions—places truly devoted to helping the poor and needy rather than primarily providing a place for religious observation, are another thing. I see a place for them in society and have no trouble with them getting an exemption.

The handling of the rules and regulations is going to be tough in any case…and no matter how honestly administered will be subject to abuse.

And I am sure the conservative clergy will be breaking the spirit of the "stay out of politics" rules...and will get away with it.

It turns my stomach that so many will be Christian clergy who have to be damn near insane to suppose the conservative agenda more closely represents the teachings of Jesus than the liberal agenda.
As I said, it's not cut and dried, and the comments of High Lonesome and Frank Apisa demonstrate the point.

High Lonesome obviously confronts these issues in a more practical manner than the average reader, since she has to wrestle with these issues whenever she wants to comment on the political issues of the day from the pulpit.

Her first example, unlikely as it may seem, an invasion on the eve of an election, would indeed seem to cause her to cross the electioneering line. To speak against the action of going to war when that action is closely tied to only one candidate--the incumbent--on the eve of an election would seem to fit the definition of attempting to affect the outcome of the election.

The ballot questions as social-justice issues observation seems a little easier to deal with. Clergy can and do deal with social justice issues from the pulpit, they just cannot address them per se as ballot questions, and they better not do it on the eve of an election if they want to avoid IRS scrutiny.

Franks says, why give churches and exemption at all? That is a good question. The theory is that charitable organizations accomplish ends that the government would otherwise have to address, thus the tax benefit for acting in the place of government (and generally doing it cheaper and better). As churches fed the poor, housed the homeless, counseled the hurting and buried the dead, they were seen as performing good works quite apart from their theological stripes, some churches have pulled back from serving the average joe and begun to confer benefits only upon their membership, they begin resemble private clubs, and that serves no purpose in loco governmentis. If they sponsor international missions to convert the heathens to Christianity, that serves no governmental purpose for sure. Yet these churches can lawyer up in ways that would easily thwart any actions against their tax-exempt status, short of just canning it via legislative action.

The American religious structure shorn of its good works ethos indeed looks like a poor candidate for continued tax exemption. But to what degree has the sector as a whole backed away from this part of mission. And if they only serve their members is that good enough?

It's a thorny problem, but it's good to see how many of the comments here get to the heart of it.
Good points you just made, Steve. While writing my comments earlier, the thought that kept running through my mind was, "Don't advocate throwing out the baby with the bathwater."

Hard not to do that these days in the complicated, complex world in which we live.

Wouldn't be a piece of cake to cut off exemption for churches without endangering the true charity work they do...and I am not sure I want our politicians to tackle it. They can easily make things much worse!
Well, I'm old enough to remember when the preacher in our Baptist Church in Michigan stood IN THE PULPIT and told the members of the congregation not to vote for Catholic JFK. On the Sunday before election Tuesday, that same sermon was delivered in countless Protestant churches throughout the country, and I don't recall ONE preacher or ONE church being called to task for it.

I say it's long past time we dispensed with the archaic notion that churches should not be taxed. The lame reckoning that "the power to tax is the power to destroy" applies to every other institution, so why not churches, especially churches like the multimillion dollar scam/enterprises/MLMs operated by Joel Osteen, John Hagee, Benny Hinn, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert and Pat Robertson -- to name but a few of many, many, many obvious shysters.
As a point of info and not of argument, I think it's worth noting that approximately 60 percent of the religious congregations in the United States have fewer than 100 members, and in most congregations, active attendance is considerably less than membership. Those congregations aren't offering many fancy amenities; mine, for example, did not have indoor plumbing until 2002.

They generally choose the charitable services they provide not as methods of evangelism but because they perceive an unmet need. In our community there is one food pantry — ours — and 42% unemployment. Yes, most have food stamps. The nearest grocery store is in a resort community 30 miles away over a 10,000 foot pass. The food stamp office in our county seat is 70 miles away. Gas is $4/gallon. Each active family in our church provides food for approximately 7 other families. Tax those contributions, and each family can only feed 6 others. Right now, we have to balance that consideration with our desire to advocate consistently all year round for a more equitable economic model. No right answer, there — especially when you consider how much money the government might actually collect on our $23,000 annual budget.
@High Lonesome
I don't wish to be argumentative either, particularly since I belong to one of those churches you describe, and I'm aware of the many good things our church does in this mountain community. But I don't think your church or mine has much to fear from the govt taxing our meager church incomes. And I would think you'd be even more angry than I at the pack of TV charlatans who are giving religion a bad name.

It's long past time to treat Big-Time Religion operations for what they are -- highly profitable corporations run mostly for the benefit of charlatans like Joel Osteen. Writing-off his many jets as church expenses cheats we the people, but far worse, it cheats God. The Prosperity Gospel is heresy, and anyone who knows anything about the teachings of Jesus ought to be ashamed to have anything to do with it. Jesus wept again.
Perhaps churches should be obliged to present financial statements, showing income and disbursements. Bona fide charitable expenditures would be tax-deductible, but ostentatious Osteen jets not.
Perhaps churches should be obliged to present financial statements, showing income and disbursements. Bona fide charitable expenditures would be tax-deductible, but ostentatious Osteen jets not.
And those preachers meddling in politics are flouting both the rules of God and Caesar, confident that they can get away with it.
Your words are powerful, and seem to come from someone who knows the law. I've had a lot of experience with this (in my line of work, especially) , I can say that you are right on - as in 100%. Most thinking "Christians" (as we are called) will see the difference between a social club that tells you how to vote (or as you say, "gives opinion") and thinking with your own mind. This should be required reading: the truth hurts, sometimes...but it always builds up.
All of what you said, plus the timidity of Eric Holder's Department of Justice.
Thanks for the additional comments, all, and High Lonesome, again, you raise some excellent points. Who would have guessed that there are so many small grassroots congregations? Many of them are evidently struggling and surviving on modest contributions by their members.

How different that is from the stunning growth of the evangelistic mega-churches with multi-million dollar ministries and--often enough a hard-core social conservative message. For them the religious message is political and a good number want earthly political power to suit their theology.

The nonreligious nonprofit sector talks about policing itself, about stewardship that upholds the tradition of nonpartisan charitable action. But that doesn't seem to work within the religious community, if you can call it that, because mega-preachers are playing hardball and churches like yours, High Lonesome, will suffer for it if stricter enforcement ever comes out of this. Frankly, I rather doubt that it will while Obama's in office. And of course no Republican I can imagine would rein in his or her base like that. So maybe the status quo remains in place indefinitely.