Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Churches should not endorse candidates for office.

Why you’re right:

1. It’s not good for democracy. Allowing churches to endorse would open another enormous loophole in our already ailing campaign finance system. Unlike political action committees, churches are non-profit organizations entitled to tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status. If congregations endorsed candidates, then giving to a church would enable a politically motivated donor to effectively support a candidate and claim a tax deduction at the same time. Additionally, if churches became key sites of campaign organizing, the denominational majority in a particular district would become the de facto political majority, creating a dangerous environment for minority rights. (Americans United for Separation of Church and State)

2. It’s not good for religion. The separation of church and state helps to ensure the health of the church as well as the state. Churches serve many functions – spiritual, ethical, and communal – all of which could be corrupted by the intrusion of campaigns. Conservative and liberal religious leaders alike express displeasure at the idea of churches as sites of endorsement, recognizing that pressures to endorse would distract them from their primary duties. And endorsing a particular candidate would disrupt the unity of congregations, which often span the political spectrum in their membership. (NYT, Americans United)

3. Americans don’t want it to happen. A March 2002 survey by the Pew Forum in Religion and Public Life found that 78% of mainline Protestants, 61% of white evangelicals, 58 % of black Protestants, 73% of Catholics and 74% of those who identified themselves as secular did not want clergy to endorse candidates. (Pew)

Why they’re wrong:

When the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign sought to identify “friendly congregations” in Pennsylvania, and when they instructed local organizers to turn over their church directories, no one stepped forward to provide a principled defense of the actions. Instead, House Republican leaders created a back-door provision (since defeated) that would have made it easier to for churches to violate their tax-exempt status by dubbing many violations “unintentional.” The measure, lacking a basis in ethics or reason, was opposed even by the conservative Southern Baptist Convention. (Bush-Cheney Memo, Washington Post)

A better idea:

Churches that want to become more politically active ought to engage in the many kinds of organizing allowed them under their tax-exempt status, including sponsoring debates among candidates, providing forums in which congregants can discuss political issues, and conducting voter registration drives. Campaigns should organize communities through political action committees that do not have the privilege of tax-exempt status.