Churches have been barred from directly supporting or opposing candidates since the passage of the Johnson Amendment in 1954. But pastors can still work on the election in meaningful ways without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status, so long as they are mindful of the rules. My guiding principle when it comes to speaking out around elections is Matthew 10:16: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” As Christians, we are called to involve ourselves in the political process while guarding ourselves from the dangers of moral compromise.
As a pastor and the CEO of a faith-based, tax-exempt nonprofit, I’ve worked on election-related projects in every cycle since 2008. From candidate forums to press conferences to get-out-the-vote programs, our activities have always helped people of faith get involved in the election without running afoul of IRS regulations.
Here are answers to some important questions about speaking out in the final few weeks before the election:
Can pastors endorse candidates?
Clergy who are employed by churches that are tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations cannot endorse candidates from the pulpit, on church websites or social media accounts, in church publications, or at church events. Official endorsements are 100 percent out of bounds. Although President Donald Trump has said he would like to "totally destroy" the Johnson Amendment, it is still very much in effect.
However, pastors may endorse candidates in their personal capacities if the endorsement explicitly states that the pastor speaks only for herself rather than the church. Clergy may make such endorsements on personal social media accounts, in media appearances, in ads that are not sponsored by the church, and at public events not organized or sponsored by the church.
Retired pastors and those who aren’t employed by 501(c)(3) organizations aren’t subject to these rules.
Can churches host candidates?
Churches may allow political candidates to attend events and address the congregation if the event is impartial. That means inviting all candidates for the office in question, providing equal time and access, and not structuring an event to clearly favor one candidate over another. Churches that conduct such events should preserve all communications with the campaigns. Be fair and transparent.
Can pastors encourage and facilitate voting?
Clergy can preach from the pulpit and post online about the importance of voting, conduct voter registration drives, provide transportation to polling places, and hold get-out-the-vote events. These are safe ground and important work. Be sure to avoid displaying or sharing partisan materials or messages at events – just like an official polling place would.
Is it safe to speak out on the issues?
Pastors may preach about public policy issues and encourage people to consider these issues as they weigh their votes. They can express a clear stance on the issues as well. What they can’t do is telegraph a clear candidate endorsement in the process.
Because speaking out on issues of justice that impact the least privileged among us is such an important responsibility, and such a nuanced area of the Internal Revenue Code, it’s a good idea to read the IRS’s guidance directly. Here’s the relevant section of their Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations:
501(c)(3) organizations must avoid any issue advocacy that functions as political campaign intervention. Even if a statement does not expressly tell an audience to vote for or against a specific candidate, an organization delivering the statement is at risk of violating the political campaign intervention prohibition if there is any message favoring or opposing a candidate. A statement can identify a candidate not only by stating the candidate’s name but also by other means such as showing a picture of the candidate, referring to political party affiliations, or other distinctive features of a candidate’s platform or biography. All the facts and circumstances need to be considered to determine if the advocacy is political campaign intervention.
Key factors in determining whether a communication results in political campaign intervention include the following:
■ 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.
Personally, I navigate these questions by honestly interrogating my intentions: What am I really trying to do here? Are my words centering the scriptural call to do justice and defend the cause of the oppressed (Isaiah 1:17), or are they serving a candidate?
Some pastors endorse candidates every single election. Why can’t my church?
It’s true, some pastors and churches cut corners and get away with it. Do not take this as a sign of lax enforcement. Take compliance seriously, even if you see others skirting the rules.