The 2012 Presidential election is almost here and many pastors are challenging the IRS stance on churches engaging in politics. Most people think restrictions on the involvement of churches in politics are tied to lofty principles.
Well…. Maybe not.
The current prohibition against church involvement in politics goes back to 1954 when Lyndon Johnson championed a restriction in the tax code on tax-exempt groups endorsing or opposing political candidates.
Was Johnson driven by some high ideal of good government? It’s difficult to judge motives”1– but it’s not so difficult to judge “judgment.”
It was a bad idea.
Whatever the reason, the change eventually cascaded into the situation we have today– a “naked public square”2 stripped of all transcendent considerations by the exclusion of churches from political discourse.
Unfortunately, many think the present situation is ideal. But if there are any ideals in the issue, they are on the side of churches– specifically, the right of churches to argue “politics.”
The word itself comes from the Greek word “polis” meaning “city.” For ancient Greeks, “politics” were those things that went into the making of a community. So the church and politics go hand-in-hand because the church is THE preeminent community– historically and theologically.
Thus the present-day policy of excluding churches from political discourse via threat of taxation goes against nature and nature’s God. Moreover tax exemptions for churches are not privileges granted by the government. They are not “tax expenditures” as if they cost the government anything it already owns. Rather, it is the people who grant the government the privilege of taxing certain things– and they have never granted that privilege with respect to churches.
So taking away the tax exemption of a church for engaging in its core function (politics) is better understood as an intrusion of the government into an area where it has previously been excluded.
That is the situation we have today. The result has been to strip the public square naked of ultimate concerns and to ensure public policy is shaped by lesser considerations.
Revised and re-posted from 30 Sep 2008.
1 Many think he was trying to protect some friends from being attacked as communists by then tax-exempt organizations.
2 A phrase popularized by Richard John Neuhas.