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Do you preach politics from the pulpit?
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Do you preach politics from the pulpit?
By Wesley White

The writer and his wife, Nancy, attend the Church of God Big Sandy, where he does not preach on politics.

BIG SANDY, Texas--Last Tuesday evening I found myself sitting in a community-college classroom with Moore Wright Thnu. Our conversation went like this:

Wes: "Moore, I can't believe I let you talk me into attending this Internal Revenue Service seminar on 501(c)(3) regulations."

Moore: "It will do you good to learn the proper guidelines on what you can and can't say from the church pulpit regarding politics."

Wes: "I don't need this. I don't preach that often in my local church, and, when I do, I talk about doctrine and biblical history. I completely avoid the subject of politics."

Moore: "That's where you're making your mistake. You need to talk politics when you preach in your church."

Wes: "What? I don't come to church to talk politics. I come to church to fellowship and to learn more about the Bible."

Moore: "You just don't get it, Wes. In the old days we would get disfellowshipped for getting involved in politics. Today most of the members of my church are real participants in the political process. Your church needs to ... Shh. Here comes our teacher."

Topknot come down?

A slender, elderly lady strides to the lectern. Her face exudes no smile. Her hair is placed neatly on top of her head in a tight bun. She reminds me of my spinster, no-nonsense second-grade teacher who kept a paddle in her desk drawer.

Instructor: "Welcome to our seminar. My name is Faith N. Goodguv. You may call me Miss Goodguv. I am a certified instructor from the IRS, and I am here tonight to help you as leaders in your respective churches.

"Let's make it clear from the beginning that the intent of the IRS is not to restrict the freedom of speech of American citizens. We only want to point out that federal statutes prohibit using church donations and church assets from being used to promote or to oppose political candidates and/or political issues.

"If your church wishes to retain its tax-exempt status it must comply with IRS regulations regarding federal, state and local elections.

"Let's begin by asking if anyone has any specific questions."

Moore: "I do. I do. Call on me first."

Instructor: "Yes, sir. Your name tag says you are Mr. Thnu."

Moore stands up enthusiastically.

Red-blooded American

Moore: "Some time ago a member of my church took me to task for a comment I made in a sermon. It was after the last presidential election. I said, 'The other night while watching the election returns on TV it did my heart good to see all those red states on the map.' Wasn't that okay?"

Instructor: "Well, actually, that comment violated election law. Let me read you a portion of the IRS code. 'Leaders cannot make partisan comments at official ... functions of the organization.'

"Your church service was definitely an official function of your 501(c)(3) organization, and your comment was indeed partisan."

Moore: "But I'm not really a leader in my church just because I preach. I'm not the pastor. I'm not on the church board."

Instructor: "That doesn't matter. By virtue of the fact that you spoke from the pulpit, your congregation looks to you for leadership."

Churches prohibited

Moore: "Really? Well, how about this comment? Once in a sermon I said that I would never vote for any candidate who didn't oppose abortion."

Instructor: "Oh, my. The propriety of that statement is more than questionable.

"Again let me quote the code. Churches are 'absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in ... any political campaign ... in opposition to any candidate for elective public office.'

"Your statement could definitely be construed as advocating that listeners should not vote for any candidate who doesn't agree with your view of abortion."

Moore begins to squirm.

Instructor: "What else can you tell the class about your sermons?"

Moore: "I ... That is ... I ..."

Instructor: "Please. I insist. Tell us more, Mr. Moore."

Moore: "Well, last Sabbath I said that Hillary Clinton was a terrorist."

Instructor: "From the pulpit?"

Moore: "Uh, yes."

Instructor: "This is not good. The IRS statutes say, '... Public statements ... in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition on political campaign intervention ... Even if a statement does not expressly tell an audience to vote for or against a specific candidate, an organization delivering the statement is at risk of violating the political-campaigning-intervention prohibition if there is any message favoring or opposing a candidate.'"

Beads of perspiration begin to accumulate on Moore's forehead. Miss Goodguv attempts to be conciliatory.

Instructor: "I assume that your church is here in Texas and that your slanderous comment about a New York senator was limited to a Texas audience. For that reason I'm sure an IRS investigator would tend to look kindly on your situation. Your sermon was heard only in Texas, was it not?"

Moore: "Well, actually, our church does a video broadcast of our services on the Internet, people listen in live on our phone line, and we mail out audio recordings of our services to people all over the United States."

Miss Goodguv places her hand over her mouth.

Instructor: "My, my, my. This is not good."

Moore is suffering the early symptoms of an anxiety attack. He whispers to me, "Help me out, will you?"

I reluctantly raise my hand. Miss Goodguv calls on me.

Wes: "Well, ma'am. I think the thought process here is that church members are not of the world, but they are definitely in the world. So they should actively participate in the political process."

Instructor: "You are so right, Mister ... What is your name, sir?"

I nervously look down at my name tag as though I need to see the information on it to figure out who I am.

Wes: "Wes White, ma'am."

Instructor: "Thank you, Mr. White. The IRS and all branches of the federal government encourage citizens to take part in the political process. Democracy cannot survive without citizen involvement, and we certainly have no desire to infringe on your First Amendment rights. It's just that the law says you can't use your church to promote political beliefs."

Moore: "Yes! Yes! That's what I have been telling him, Miss Goodguv!"

I look at Moore in stunned disbelief.

Instructor: "Mr. Thnu, I would think that you would agree with me that people don't come to church because they want to hear you bray your half-baked ideas on politics."

Moore: "You are so right. Tell us more!"

My jaw drops. I am speechless.

Instructor: "Mr. Thnu, don't you agree that your congregation would be better served if everyone were to attend church services for the purpose of fellowshipping and learning about the Bible?

"Isn't that preferable to injecting your ill-informed political views into the worship process?"

Moore: "Amen, sister! Tell it like it is!"

Miss Goodguv then takes out a pen and piece of paper.

Instructor: "By the way, Mr. Thnu, what is the name of the church you attend? I think a review of your 501(c)(3) status just might be in order at this time."

(If you have questions about whether your church is staying within the guidelines of IRS regulations, feel free to visit

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