Most Americans Say Churches Mixing Politics Should Lose Tax Exemption

Over half of Americans believe churches that publicly endorse candidates for public office should lose their tax exemption, a recent study shows.

According to LifeWay Research, the research arm of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, 38 percent of all surveyed Americans said they strongly agree with that statement and 14 percent said they somewhat agree. Meanwhile, 25 percent strongly disagree with churches losing their tax-exempt status and 17 percent somewhat disagree.

Results from the survey, conducted in June 2008 on more than 1,200 adults, were released days before pastors across the country are scheduled to preach from their pulpits this coming Sunday about the moral qualifications of candidates seeking political office.

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"Pulpit Freedom Sunday" on Sept. 28 is part of the Alliance Defense Fund's Pulpit Initiative. The purpose of the initiative is not to get politics into the pulpit, the ADF insists, but to "get the government out of the pulpit."

"Churches can decide for themselves that they either do or don't want their pastors to speak about electoral candidates," the ADF, a legal alliance of Christian attorneys, said in a statement. "The point of the Pulpit Initiative is very simple: the IRS should not be the one making the decision by threatening to revoke a church's tax-exempt status."

Congress made it illegal in 1954 for tax-exempt groups to intervene in a political campaign. The ADF opposes the restriction, claiming that "pastors are muzzled for fear of investigation by the IRS" and are forced to choose between participating in political campaigns and accepting tax-deductible donations.

Dozens of clergy, however, are against ADF's efforts and some participated in their own initiative last Sunday, preaching on the value of the separation of church and state.

While Americans have overwhelmingly expressed their dislike of politics in the pulpit, according to LifeWay Research, a significant minority did not express a firm support for the government stripping churches of their tax exemption in the case of a political endorsement.

"Americans don't want churches in politics but they are not as certain they want the government in the churches," said Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research.

Those who are older, not from the South, or married are more likely to agree with churches losing their tax-exempt status if they endorse candidates.

Meanwhile, born-again, evangelical or fundamentalist Protestants (26 percent) are less likely than other Protestants (39 percent) to agree. The born-again believers (62 percent) are also less likely to disagree with churches campaigning for candidates for public office compared to Protestants who do not consider themselves born-again (74 percent).

Overall, most Americans (85 percent) do not believe it is appropriate for churches to use their resources to campaign for candidates for public office and 87 percent disagree with pastors publicly endorsing candidates for office during a church service.

Even when it comes to pastors endorsing candidates outside their church role, 44 percent of Americans disagree with that practice. Personal endorsements by pastors are okay for 54 percent of Americans.

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