Is your political organization a church?
Political organizations making religious claims are nothing new in the United States. The role of religion in public life has been, is, and will be debated as long as the United States exists. This is due to our particular denial of the power of Congress in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Congress is prohibited from establishing a national religion. The United States guarantees the right to freedom of religion. Practice your religion. Don’t make your neighbor practice it too. It sounds simple. But the application of the principle is always the problem.
No national church
Some people argue that the First Amendment means there can be no national church. The country can be generically Christian as long as no denomination has official status. The amendment is worded very carefully. The words are “an establishment of religion”. Any national church would imply that Christianity had official status. Our First Amendment removes any concrete excuse for claiming that the United States has an official faith. The UK is Christian. The United States is not. If it did, there would be a slew of congressional laws regarding the collection of clergy salary payments. An established church would imply an established belief. Etc.
Where I live, we see the development of so-called “patriotic churches”. I can say they are heretics. Congress cannot. They are political churches by definition. According to an article by ProPublica, political organizations that were formerly registered as charities are granted “church status” by the IRS. These groups include the Family Research Council, Liberty Counsel, and the American Family Association. Then there is also the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association which was granted church status in 2015.
The IRS Form 990 that charities must file each year is a report on how the money raised is spent. Churches are not subject to this deposit. There is no transparency required for churches. However, many churches choose to be transparent to their members and are required to be with their denominational leaders. Many church budgets hide staff salaries by lumping them all into one category. Churches find it difficult to hide “the Lord’s money”. I suspect the political churches will be worse.
Tax the churches?
Donations to political organizations are not tax deductible. Donations to churches are. This is a godsend for major donors to political churches. Small donors will also benefit. But giving church status to organizations that provide platforms for selecting politicians is dangerous for democracy. This is another form of black money financing.
Churches are not allowed to sponsor candidates. But they are allowed to argue issues. Many clergy use social media to remind people of “what the Bible says” about an issue. They thus give a “pocket approval” to the candidates. It’s a fine line to walk. But these clergymen know exactly what they are doing. Any refusal is dishonesty on their part.
Is it time to tax the churches? Maybe. But the mega-churches will be able to handle it. Small churches will feel the burden more. This is a difficult question. Progressive Christians can shoot themselves in the foot by claiming it. But it’s tempting.
If I feed the homeless when the government tells me not to, I am making a political gesture. I can claim it’s mercy. But by defying the law, I am committing a political act. Churches cannot avoid acting in a way that seems political to someone. The Kingdom is political. It is not a policy. When we try to influence secular affairs, we are participating in state politics. This is an important distinction that we miss.
Members of the Church are also citizens within the secular system. They act politically by voting according to their conscience. Attempting to influence the Christian conscience to serve secular and economic powers is against Jesus. This is what FRC and other organizations are doing. They are against what Jesus advocates and for what he opposes. It is heresy. I manage to say that. Congress and the IRS can’t say. But they must not grant them a special status reserved for religious authorities.