Politics & the Pulpit

By Jennifer Parker

Feb 4, 2008 1:58pm

"I campaigned this morning in African-American churches in Los Angeles with Congressman (Kendrick) Meek, here from Florida, and four of the members of Congress from Southern California that are supporting Hillary," former President Bill Clinton said last night, "and then Bill (Richardson) asked me to come watch the Super Bowl and I thought the American people might like to have a little relief  from our politics, so I jumped at the chance."

Watch the video of the comments HERE

Clinton’s use of he word "campaigned" is an interesting one, diction that doesn’t quite get at what is and what is not permitted. 

Because even though Bill Clinton was advocating for his wife’s election before a big group of likely Democrats in a key state two days before an election he clearly had NOT been "campaigning." At least not as the IRS defines it.

Clinton on Sunday visited and spoke at the Brookins Community AME Church in Los Angeles, the City of Refuge church in Gardena, and the Church of the New Covenant in Norwalk.

By all accounts his appearances were subdued and  he did not even mention Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois.  The former President said his wife was a world-class change maker and the best candidate he’s ever had a chance to support.

"We hosted the opening worship service for the city of Los Angeles African-American celebration," says the leader of Brookins Community AME Church, Rev. Dr. Frederick O Murph. "We decided we wanted to bring in people from various races and various cultures and also political leadership. We reached out to both the Obama campaign and the Clinton campaign, not to endorse either candidate but so people could hear from both sides with understanding that this was a worship service and not a political rally."

Would Rev. Murph say Clinton was "campaigning"?

"Absolutely not," he says. "When you think about campaigning you think about placards and yelling and chanting." In this case "the president addressed issues that his wife Hillary stood for in a very sophisticated way that did not offend anyone….People were just elated he took the time to come and worship with us."

The media often uses the term "campaigned" to describe these events (like HERE  with GOP Maryland Senate candidate Michael Steele or HERE with these Sunday visits by Bill Clinton.)

The politicians, on the other hand, are usually more wary of the word.

"I’m shocked that he said that," Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, tells ABC News.

That’s because, Lynn says, the IRS has a "zero tolerance" policy when it comes to the direct merging of politics in tax-exempt organizations like churches. The candidates (or their surrogates) are never at risk — it’s the churches, which are barred from "political campaign intervention" in order to maintain their tax-exempt status. Church-funded voter guides that advocate for candidates and endorsements from the pulpit are the most egregious offenses of the IRS rules.

"Usually people are a little more sensitive," Lynn says. "Obviously the closer you get to being invited up during the service — and his use of the word ‘campaigning’ — the bigger the possible tax implications for the church."

It’s a weird line to walk – though clearly Clinton’s activities didn’t come close to the line — because obviously politicians who run for president and speak at house of worship during services are doing so for votes. But while Clinton was clearly campaigning as you or I might understand it colloquially,  he wasn’t "campaigning" as the IRS would have it:

A 501(c)(3) organization may invite political candidates (and someone acting on behalf of a political candidate) to speak at its events without jeopardizing its tax-exempt status…."Depending on the facts and circumstances, an organization may invite political candidates to speak at its events without jeopardizing its tax-exempt status. Political candidates may be invited in their capacity as candidates, or in their individual capacity (not as a candidate).  Candidates may also appear without an invitation at organization events that are open to the public.

When a candidate is invited to speak at an organization event as a political candidate, the organization must take steps to ensure that:
• It provides an equal opportunity to political candidates seeking the same office;
• It does not indicate any support for or opposition to the candidate (this should be stated explicitly when the candidate is introduced and in communications concerning the candidate’s attendance); and
• No political fundraising occurs

Lynn’s organization recently filed a complaint against two conservative religious organizations, the American Family Association and WallBuilders, for allegedly  crossing that line, for promoting the candidacy of former Arkansas Governor and Baptist Minister Mike Huckabee.

Huckabee, Lynn says, is "reasonably careful about just giving sermons" during his frequent visits to churches. "It’s obvious he’s running for president, but he doesn’t make a big deal about his candidacy."

Last month, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State also wrote to the IRS to complain about the Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ in Las Vegas where, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the pastor,  speaking from the pulpit, advocated for Obama, "possibly breaking the law. Pastor Leon Smith told the congregation that ‘the more he (Obama) speaks, the more he wins my confidence, and … if the polls were open today, I would cast my vote for this senator.’"

Says Lynn: "I really wish these candidates would just go to church sit in the pews and just listen and learn something about the diversity of religion in our country."

- jpt

You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus