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Should churches be able to endorse candidates?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Prince of Peace Presbyterian Church in Crofton Maryland polling place 2006 midterm elections (Credit: Polling Place Photo Project)

I write a weekly column for the Texas Faith blog at The Dallas Morning News.  One recent question was provocative: should the federal ban on political activity by churches and religious institutions be repealed?

In 1954, Lyndon Johnson spearheaded the effort that created the ban.  Since that time, it has prohibited ministers and churches from using their tax-exempt platform to endorse specific candidates.  Is this a good or bad thing?  My response follows.

Martin Luther King, Jr. never publicly endorsed a political candidate.  Billy Graham did, and later said his personal involvement in politics was one of his greatest regrets.

The law preventing charitable organizations from endorsing candidates benefits churches far more than it harms us.  The ban does not prevent free speech by ministers or churches.  Ministers can speak directly about political issues and legislation as they wish.  Churches can register their members as voters, distribute non-partisan voters’ guides, and invite all candidates in a race to address their congregation.  If only one shows up, he or she can still speak.

Ministers can also endorse and support a specific candidate.  However, they cannot use their tax-exempt church platform to do so.

Why not?

Imagine the consequences if churches could engage directly in political campaigns.  The minister might endorse candidates that some in the church do not support.  Church funds could be used to support campaigns.  Church property could be used to publicize and promote candidates.  Inevitably, some in the church would disagree with the political decisions made by church leaders.  Picture the division and chaos that could ensue.

Then envision a scenario whereby elected officials treat churches favorably or unfavorably depending on their support during the campaign.  Building permits could be approved or rejected.  Positive publicity could enhance the church’s ability to attract new members; negative attention could harm its ministry.

However, the separation of church and state does not mean the separation of faith and state.  While churches should not become political organizations, I am convinced that God is calling more of his followers into public service than are answering his call.  Mahatma Gandhi was right: “Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.”