Acton Institute Powerblog

Freedom (and Prudence) in the Pulpit

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Over 1,000 pastors across the U.S. agreed to participate in yesterday’s Pulpit Freedom Sunday. The event, part of a strategic litigation plan sponsored by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), is an annual attempt to provoke the IRS into revoking the non-profit status of churches. Pastors signed a pledge agreeing to “evaluate candidate(s) running for political office during a regular worship service in light of biblical Truth and church doctrine.”

While the IRS has reportedly issued threats to pastors who use the pulpit of political speeches, the agency has never actually taken the issue to court. “[The IRS prefers] to put out these vague statements and regulations and enforce it through a system of intimidation, says Erik Stanley, ADF’s senior legal counsel. “Pastors are afraid to address anything political from the pulpit.”

Although I have a number of friends at ADF and highly value the work they do, I’ve never been comfortable with their encouraging pastors to make political endorsements  And I’m not the only one. According to a recent survey by LifeWay Research, nearly 90 percent of Protestant pastors believe they should not endorse candidates for public office from the pulpit.

My own view is that preachers are called to preach, not provide punditry. As Daniel Darling, a Chicago-area pastor and author, recently wrote,

This sounds like a cliche, but it bears saying: faithful Bible preachers use the text of the Word of God as their source of preaching. Anything less is simply a speech, which may be inspirational, moral, or even Christian-themed. But if our basis is not the text, we’re not preaching.

This is not to say that preachers should stay away from the political. That is an impossibility in an age when much theological territory has been encroached upon by politicians. Preachers have an obligation to explain how the truths of scripture and tradition apply to our current human situation, whether it applies to the moral, economic, or political realms. But while the Bible may endorse certain political positions, scripture does not endorse individual candidates. Neither should preachers.

I should clarify, however, that while I may have religious objections to preachers endorsing candidates during church services, I believe they have the right to do so. Indeed, they should be able to freely exercise those rights without having to endure government intimidation. As Stanley says in a recent op-ed, “Just as with those other rights, free speech is a constitutionally protected freedom, not a privilege that the government can grant or revoke while dangling the tax-exempt status of the speaker’s church over his head.”

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Nehemiah

    While I agree that Pastors must be very careful in this area, there are times when candor is necessary and connecting the dots is appropriate. If a candidate takes a pro-abortion stance he/she should be called out from the pulpit. We need clarity. Too often politicians attempt to finesse the issue, “while I am personally opposed to abortion, I cannot bring myself to prevent a woman that choice”. Give me a break. Our Pastors must call our attention to intrinsic evil when they see it.

  • C

    The IRS restriction doesn’t limit freedom of speech. It limits the ability of non-profits to use government money for that speech. Very different things. So any church may endorse or oppose a candidate, but not if it wants to keep its tax-exempt status. Cake and eating. If your church wants to speak, it may, but it must then be subject to taxation.

    • Roger McKinney

      Tax exemption is not a subsidy. To think it a subsidy, one would have to assume that the government owns all of our money and just allows us use some of it.

  • Jump

    tl;dr: There are better reasons to think pastors have a duty (all things being equal) to endorse candidates from the pulpit, than there are to think they have the duty to refrain.

    long version:Mr. Carter, I greatly appreciate your articles, but I’d like to push back a bit: I think the distinction between preaching and so-called “punditry” (of the sort you mention) is dubious. Pastors give moral exhortation (among other things) from the pulpit all the time, and rightly so. So why would it be off limits full-stop if that moral exhortation were to include an admonition to vote for a particular candidate? If Jesus were in your or my shoes, as an American faced with options in the voting booth, he would indeed pull the lever for a particular candidate–and in the case of the present election at least, the decision would not only be made on pragmatic grounds, but also on moral grounds. Pastors can know, and many do know, how Jesus would vote were he to walk into that voting booth, and it is their responsibility, other things being equal, to transmit that knowledge to their congregants, many of whom lack such knowledge.

    As to Daniel Darling’s well-intended defense of the preaching/”punditry” distinction, two responses:
    1. His twin claims (about what biblical preaching consists in, and about whether pastors should be making candidate endorsements) aren’t themselves taught in the Bible. (Of course, sermon content should be consistent with the Bible, but it does not follow from that that “faithful biblical preaching” consist only in Bible exposition.)

    2. Even if candidate endorsements were to fail to count as “preaching” in Mr Darling’s Pickwickian sense, it wouldn’t follow that candidate endorsements from the pulpit are even generally impermissible.

  • In Canada you can now have your tax exempt status revoked for preaching Christian doctrine. Pastors have been chastised and fined for writing letters condemning the embrace of homosexuality and threatened for preaching against abortion… this is now considered political activism and hate speech. At some point we will have to push back and that means risking the tax exempt status of churches.
    We have witnessed an incremental push to silence or co-opt the church – the frog-in-a-pot strategy – and if the church embraces the world, promoting the secular agenda, it receives a waiver on “political” speech. If the church is faithful and true, preaching the received doctrine, it will be marginalized. The tactics of “Pulpit Freedom” may appear too direct to some but they parallel and emphasize the testimony of Catholics and Lutherans regarding the Obamacare mandate and abortion.