The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a conservative Christian organization that promotes the expansion of certain privileges to religious groups, announced yesterday that its annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday will be this Sunday, September 27. What is this all about?
Current IRS tax law states that a church that endorses a political candidate will lose its tax-exempt status. (See this earlier post for more background information.) The ADF and others argue that this is an infringement on freedom of speech. The IRS says that churches that act like political organizations should be taxed like those other organizations. Groups with agendas opposite the ADF, like the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, take it upon themselves to report religious leaders who speak out about candidates.
To be clear, it is not illegal for a church to endorse a candidate; it just means that the church will have to pay a bunch of taxes if it does. Also, a church can endorse stances on political issues and retain its tax-exempt status; it is endorsing candidates that is the problem.
Which brings us to Pulpit Freedom Sunday. On Pulpit Freedom Sunday, religious leaders around the country will protest the current IRS policy by intentionally endorsing candidates from their pulpits during their sermons.
I think it is easy to understand where the ADF is coming from in disputing the rule. It is less obvious why a religious leader would favor the current restriction. One explanation is that those leaders who want to endorse candidates would be better able than other leaders to have influence over their respective church members. As we will discuss later in the quarter, stricter churches, which tend to be right-of-center, have denser social networks, and this may allow them to operate more effectively in collective efforts, including mobilizing before an election. Less-strict churches, which tend to be left-of-center, would then have more difficultly in fostering this type of collective action. Thus, we have an economic explanation for why those in favor of endorsing candidates would be the ones who would benefit more from a change in the regulation, while those who prefer the status quo benefit more as is.
Can you think of another reason why a religious leader would prefer the status quo? And what do you think of this policy? Should religious leaders be allowed to endorse political candidates? Why or why not?