With the presidential election coming up, many churches and ministry leaders may wonder what they can and cannot do when it comes to politics. Is there a line, and, if so, when do you cross it?
Churches are required to remain impartial toward candidates, yet church leaders tend to invest more in social issues, such as pro-life and same-sex marriage, than the average voter. Clearly the church’s interest in politics isn’t going away anytime soon.
Salem Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois, understands the conflicts that can arise between politics and the church firsthand. Their senior pastor, James Meeks, was a former Illinois State Senator from 2003 to 2013 and currently serves as the chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education. Meeks ran for office in 2002, won, and was re-elected for two additional terms, acting as an advocate for the Roseland community on Chicago’s South Side, all while leading one of the largest African American churches in the city.
Church administrator Veronica Abney has worked at Salem Baptist Church for 20 years and knows how Salem’s ministry was carefully kept from becoming too intermingled with Meeks’s campaigns and political work in order to keep from violating any IRS rules for charitable organizations. She says the key to this is keeping the two—politics and the pulpit—completely separate. “We run our organization pretty much like a corporation,” says Abney. “We’re a megachurch, so therefore you don’t find things that would cause us to be in a compromising position.”
During Meeks’s state Senate campaigns, no one solicited votes through the church, asked for volunteers, or promoted Meeks’s political work on church grounds. People found out about the political initiatives of Meeks’s campaign and state Senate terms from the media. Candidates were not invited to speak at Salem Baptist Church during campaign seasons and would not have been allowed to share their views unless all running candidates were invited to speak.
Abney says the church staff were never used in any capacity associated with Meeks’s campaigns or legislative efforts as part of their work for Salem Baptist Church.
“If members volunteered they would have done it on their own,” says Abney. “It wouldn’t have been anything that I would have been aware of as an administrator at Salem [Baptist Church].”
As far as formal guidelines go for churches seeking to get involved politically, there are only a few specific—and critically important—rules issued by the IRS to 501(c)3 organizations. Providing funding to candidates, making a public statement supporting a candidate, and getting directly involved in a political campaign are forbidden and can result in a nonprofit’s loss of tax-exempt status, according to the IRS. Abney urges churches that are considering involvement in politics to talk to an attorney for guidance on what nonprofits are and are not allowed to do.
“My recommendation would always be to seek legal counsel who are familiar with political initiatives and nonprofits before entertaining or pursing anything like that,” says Abney. “They are well worth their scale of pay for the services that they render.”
Christen Gall is a freelance writer from the Midwest.
For more information on politics and church, check out the downloadable resource Politics and the Church: What to Know in an Election Year .