Most Protestant pastors say the IRS shouldn’t punish churches for the content of sermons, a new LifeWay Research survey shows.
The Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom sponsored the phone survey of 1,000 senior pastors.
President Trump and Congress are currently debating the future of a 1954 law known as the Johnson Amendment, which bans 501(c)(3) nonprofits from involvement in political campaigns. Then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, promoted the law because he was upset with Texas nonprofits that were against his bid for re-election. The law means churches risk losing their tax-exempt status if a pastor endorses a candidate in a sermon.
According to the LifeWay Research poll, more than 7 in 10 pastors say Congress should prevent the IRS from punishing a church for sermon content, and 9 in 10 say sermons should be free from government oversight, according to a LifeWay Research news release.
But that doesn’t mean churches want their pastors to start endorsing candidates, says Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.
Other surveys over the past couple of years have shown that pastors rarely endorse candidates from the pulpit and most church-goers want it that way.
“Pastors—and Americans in general—don’t want church services to turn into campaign rallies,” McConnell said. “But when they do address political candidates, they don’t believe it is the government’s business. There’s very strong support for Congress to make sure the IRS isn’t policing sermons.”
Only one congregation has lost tax-exempt status because of the Johnson Amendment, and that came after a church in New York state ran newspaper ads opposing Bill Clinton when he ran for president in 1992. However, other churches have been investigated, including a church in Los Angeles where a pastor criticized then-President George W. Bush shortly before the 2004 election.
Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, said “churches and their pastors have a constitutionally protected freedom to decide for themselves what they want to say or not say.”
Trump signed an executive order in May asking the government to be cautious about taking “adverse action” against churches for political commentary, but Congress would have to act for the Johnson Amendment to be changed or repealed.