Politics and the Church – The Hypocrisy of Politics in the Church [Part 42]

We will continue with a search for a UMC policy that discredits the church’s involvement in politics.  Thus far, it has not been found.

     Does the General Board of Church and Society represent the church membership in political issues?

Only the General Conference speaks for the United Methodist Church.  Church and Society implements the policies  and resolutions adopted by the General Conference.  Their role is to educate and equip United Methodists to think through and act on issues from a faith perspective.

     What can I do if I disagree with the UMC’s position on an issue?

The Church recognizes that individual members may hold varying views on social and political concerns.  The Church notes in the Book of Resolutions, “You may find that your denomination’s policies give you more ‘food for thought.’  Maybe you will agree with the denomination’s position.  On the other hand, you may disagree.”  If one disagrees with the Church’s position, start by talking to the pastor.  United Methodist members who feel strongly about an issue and seek to change a current statement or policy may petition the General Conference (https://umc.org/en/content/ask-the-umc-how-are-decisions-made-at-general-conference) to request action.  Of course the other option is to go to another church/denomination.

     Why do the Church’s social statements and government policies seem so far apart on some issues?

The UMC 2016 Book of Resolutions addresses this question, beginning on page 23.  The United Methodist Church membership extends beyond the US boundaries; it is global.  So, in many cases it is speaking to, from, or with more than one national government.  Further, the Christian church must never be a mirror image of any government, whether Democrat or Republican, totalitarian or democratic.  We know that Christians are obligated to be responsible and participating citizens under any government system, but that response and participation is to be in light of the faith of the church.  “As the Social Principles state, ‘ [The Church’s] allegiance to God takes precedence over its allegiance to any state (Para 164).  And the church’s public witness is first and foremost to be judged by God by whether it supports justice, love, and mercy, particularly for the poor and powerless.”

     Does the UMC in the US support or contribute to any candidate or political party?

No.  This is prohibited activity under US non-profit law for churches and other charitable organizations.  Churches and religious organizations qualify for exemption from federal income tax and are generally eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions.  Churches may jeopardize or lose this status if they engage in “political campaign activity.”  (Like other rules and restrictions in this country I suppose some organizations, including certain churches, are exempt.  I have watched politicians give speeches from the pulpit of a church.)  According to the IRS (https://www.irs,gov/charities-non-profits/charitable-organizations/the-restriction-of-political-campaign-intervention-by-section-501c3-tax-exempt-organizations), “all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective office.  Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.  Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”  (This must apply to only select churches.  I certainly respect those churches that understand the importance of the quality of our political leadership.)

     Can churches be politically active without jeopardizing their tax exempt status?

In the United States, churches may be wary of engaging in the electoral process out of concern for the church’s tax exempt status.  Religious organizations can safeguard the right to vote, educate communities on issues and candidates, and encourage participation in the electoral process when done in a non-partisan manner.  Church and Society’s resource for local churches, Creating Change Together: A Toolkit for Faithful Civic Engagement (https://www.umcjustice.org/documents/119), lists activities a church can and cannot do.  The IRS clarifies political activities which may jeopardize a church’s tax exempt status (https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/charitable-organizations/life-cycle-of-a-public-charity-jeopardizing-exemption).  One is participating in the political campaigns of candidates for public office.  Another is spending a ‘substantial’ portion of time or resources to influence legislation.  The “substantial portion” discernment is made by the IRS (https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/measuring-lobbying-substantial-part-test) on a case by case basis. (Voter guides on a table in the narthex of a church…guides that are non-partisan produced by an outside Christian organization and available to only those who want one…hardly violates IRS rules.)  The IRS considers a number of key factors (https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-drop/rr-07-41.pdf) in determining whether an activity or communication risks violating prohibitions against political campaign intervention.  The UMC believes that churches have the “right and the duty to speak and act corporately on those matters of public policy that involve basic moral or ethical issues and questions.  The attempt to influence the information and execution of public policy at all levels of government is often the most effective means available to churches to keep before humanity the ideal of a society in which power and order are made to serve the ends of justice and freedom for all people.”  Church-Government Relations (https://www.umc.org/en/content/book-of-resolutions-church-government-relations). (As I see it, it basically comes down to some in church leadership afraid to carry out their civic and societal responsibilities.)

     Can church property be used for political rallies, voter drives, or candidate events?

There are multiple issues that inform whether or how church property may be used for such events.  An IRS webinar offers guidance (https://www.stayexempt.irs.gov/home/existing-organizations/political-campaigns-and-charities) on these types of activities by charitable organizations.  Charitable organizations may conduct non-partisan activities (https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/charitable-organizations/the-restriction-of-political-campaign-intervention-by-section-501c3-tax-exempt-organizations) that educate and encourage people to participate in the electoral process. Congregations can:

>  Discuss moral and public policy issues.

>  Urge congregants to communicate with candidates about issues or policies important to the community.

>  Encourage voting.

>  Sponsor voter registration drives if conducted in a non-partisan manner.

>  Provide education on topics in a non-partisan manner.   (This is what the Christian based voter guides do.)

>  Sponsor “get out the vote” campaigns and permit church facilities to serve as a polling place.

>  Host candidate forums as long as all candidates are invited, a broad range of issues are discussed, and all candidates have an equal opportunity to speak.  (This is the type of forum Christian based voter guides provide.)

     Congregations cannot:

>  Issue statements endorsing or supporting candidates or distribute materials biased toward or against a particular candidate or political party.

>  Donate money to a candidate or solicit contributions on their behalf.    

>  Offer church space to one candidate and refuse it to another.

>  Sponsor campaign rallies for candidates in church.

>   Donate to or set up their own Political Action Committee (PAC).

     We are fortunate that our Founding Fathers did not have these restrictions.  While my writing is focused on the UMC I am certain that the UMC is not the only denomination that is fighting these political battles.  The church has more freedom in politics than some want to admit.  I believe that some of these perceived restrictions are based on church leadership preference and not established church policy.  Jesus certainly did not avoid politics.  In fact it was His involvement in political commentary that gave the government and some church bureaucracy the excuse to crucify Him.

– Bob Munsey

“Trusting in God’s sovereignty does not mean that life will always turn out as we desire, but it does mean that life will turn out as God desires for us.”   ” I Didn’t Sign Up for This”  Arron Sharp

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