Many churches are terrified of political involvement. The threat of lawsuits by the IRS or Federal Elections Commission and possible loss of tax-exempt status have had a chilling effect on political speech by churches. But it wasn’t always that way, says David Barton.
Barton, founder of WallBuilders in Aledo, Texas, is known for his research on the beliefs and writings of America’s founding fathers, and the role that religion played in shaping this nation’s government and society. “Today there is pressure for the church to stay out of government, and even distributing a voter’s guide is meeting some opposition. This is new in America, and it is not what was meant by our founding fathers,” says Barton.
The role of clergy and churches in government has been contentious throughout the history of the nation, but questions over the appropriate role of the church in civil society have led to extensive litigation in the last four to six years, says Barton. “One major reason is that between 1988 and 1994 the number of evangelicals in America who voted actually doubled. Evangelicals became a big political force, and some people are frightened of this because evangelicals have a world view that says there are absolute rights and wrongs. Evangelicals are a force to be reckoned with, and their opponents are frightened, and that’s why you have lawsuits against groups for putting out voter’s guides — because those guides help Christians understand what is at stake in these races.”
Though lawsuits against religious involvement in politics may have had a chilling effect, they have been remarkably unsuccessful, notes Barton. “From a constitutional standpoint, the only people not eligible to be involved in the political process are convicted felons, and since being a Christian is not yet a felony, the church is free to be involved,” he insists. “To say that a church has less free speech rights than any other group is absolute nonsense.”
Barton notes that lawsuits seem to be targeting political activity by churches on one end of the ideological spectrum. “Some have decided that your free speech is politically incorrect, and so they’re going to come after you,” he says. “Churches advocating huge government programs and liberal policies are not getting in trouble — it’s the conservative churches. This has become a content issue of free speech. But it’s mostly intimidation. There are threats of lawsuits and warnings of lawsuits, but most of these will never be filed because they’re not going to go anywhere.”
Barton says churches must be conscious of their ultimate duty. “We don’t owe our allegiance to the IRS, but to God. The institution of civil government is discussed heavily in the Scriptures, and pastors shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it just because the IRS may not like it.”
— E.P. News