We Need Christian Nationalism Because Religious Neutrality Has Failed

Our religious liberty never proceeded from attempts at religious neutrality. It came precisely from the privileged position that Christianity has historically held in America and in the West.

We Need Christian Nationalism Because Religious Neutrality Has Failed

Aug 14, 2019 By Matthew Cochran

A gaggle of representatives from theologically liberal denominations recently issued a statement against Christian nationalism in America, claiming that it threatens both American democracy and the ability of our religious communities to live in peace.

To be sure, Christian nationalism is an extremely odd place to find the threat to religious freedom in a world that increasingly makes demands like “shut up and wax that woman’s b-lls.” But the irony goes deeper than that. It’s not some stroke of blind chance that lead to religious freedom in the Christian West—it was, in fact, due to our Christian faith.

To be sure, although I know self-described Christian nationalists, I’m aware of no organized political movement for this statement to oppose and so, no standard definition. Nevertheless, I have never found the label to apply to some of what the statement opposes—calls for theocracy, a conflation of American and Christian identities, and certainly not a “cover for white supremacy,” which the statement tosses in to poison the well. I’ve no interest in contending on behalf of such things.

Nevertheless, until “Christian nationalism” coalesces into something more definitive, in my experience the phrase best describes something much simpler:  a rejection of the religious neutrality of the late 20th century in favor of 1) a recognition that Christianity has had a unique and privileged influence on our American heritage that overshadows the influences of other faith traditions, 2) a conviction that a Christian understanding of the world should predominate over other worldviews in American civic life, and 3) an understanding that a nation that successfully excised or sufficiently diluted this influence could no longer be called “American” in the same sense as before. Although more general than what the statement condemns, this understanding would actually encompass many Americans, whether they accept the label or not.

Regardless of its other issues, the statement’s crosshairs certainly fall squarely on this simpler understanding as well. The statements condemns the preference for one religion over another, expresses the irrelevancy of religion for civic standing, and contends for all manner of religious neutrality in American civic life.

But our religious liberty never proceeded from attempts at religious neutrality. It came precisely from the privileged position that Christianity has historically held in America and in the West.

Early States Established Churches with Tax Support

The First Amendment forbids the establishment of a state church in the United States, but it in no way imposes the incoherent burden of religious neutrality on our civic institutions, nor demands that the right to free exercise of religion end when one crosses from private life into the public sphere. We are already experiencing the erosion of religious liberties that these erroneous presumptions have caused, with Christian business owners and officials forced to promulgate ideas they abhor and facilitate celebrations that are incompatible with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Today, when the American left speaks about religious freedom at all, it speaks in terms of “freedom of worship” rather than of free exercise. But freedom of worship is nothing more than the right to go into a private building and follow one’s preferred liturgy on any day of the week so long as it is out of the public view.

The right of free exercise of religion cannot end there, for no religion on earth ends there. Life is a series of choices in which we each decide what’s most important to us. As we order these priorities, every knee eventually bows to something more important than the rest—the “god” we consider to be the Most Important Thing. Whatever the specific details of one’s god, the very nature of a god is that it is supreme—it lays claim to one’s entire life rather than merely one’s private life.

This is true regardless of whether one follows a traditional religion or even refers to one’s highest value as a “god” at all. Even the hedonist, whose god is personal pleasure, does not leave his worship of pleasure behind when he enters the public sphere. If he refrains from certain pursuits in the public eye, it is only because such restraint will net him more pleasure in the long run. Pleasure therefore remains the god that dictates his public activities.

So it is also with the Christian, the Muslim, the secular humanist, and the utilitarian. So when the follower of a god enters into civic life—as anything from a simple voter all the way up to president—he does not and cannot cease following that god. He will instead look to what that god demands of someone who holds the positions he occupies.

Different gods make different demands. One of the reasons theological liberals are so blind on this issue is their ignorant presumption that, at their root, all religions are basically the same—that they all worship the same God, proclaim the same general values and ideals, and merely have different cultural trappings or modes of expression. In such a fantasy, a neutral pluralism is conceivable, but reality is a different matter.

Although there is only one God, there are many gods (i.e., idols) in this world. The extent to which a person will support or even accept things like secular democracy and religious pluralism depends on that person’s god.

Apply This to Today’s Public Life

What then does that mean for American democracy and religious freedom? It means neither can ever be religiously neutral. Some gods demand such things; some gods merely tolerate them; and other gods abhor them. To embrace these things as worthy of our support and protection and prioritize them over other concerns is to favor some gods and therefore some religions above others.

Rather than submitting to a fantasy of religious neutrality, Christian nationalism accepts and adapts to this reality. After all, the Christian faith is the root from which our form of religious freedom grew, and the American nation is the heritage in which it is enfleshed. The positive forms of secularism and religious liberty that had been enjoyed in America grew out of the specifics of Christianity.

Christians, for example, have always held that there is a fundamental distinction between worldly government and the kingdom of heaven. Even the statement acknowledges this. You can see it in the teachings of Jesus—that his kingdom was not of this world, and that we should render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.

You can see it in St. Augustine, when he wrote of the City of Man and the City of God. You can see it in Martin Luther’s Two Kingdoms theology. You can see it in the Church of Rome’s doctrine of the Two Swords. Different Christian traditions have certainly differed as to how these two realms relate to one another, and some have separated them far more than others. Nevertheless, the distinction has always been there. Civil government can be disentangled from the church precisely because of that Christian distinction.

Every Religion Doesn’t Do Separation of Church and State

But not every religion makes that distinction. Islam, for example, is both a religion and a political ideology. It makes no real distinction between the two. The idea of the Ummah that Muhammad left his followers—a united religious community that transcends tribe and would one day encompass the entire world—has nothing within it to encourage secularism.

Even the simple idea that church and state have distinct authorities and responsibilities is by no means religious neutral.

Political conquest is Muhammad’s legacy because he explicitly commanded it of his devotees, and he established a sharia to which everyone is supposed to submit. According to Muhammad, a pertinent distinction among religions in the world is between Dar al Islam and Dar al Harb (the House of Islam and the House of War).

So in the end, even the simple idea that church and state have distinct authorities and responsibilities is by no means religious neutral. It blatantly gives Christianity a seat of privilege in the way government is organized, and it does so at the expense of some other religions.

The same can be said of American religious freedom. Americans have deliberately refrained from establishing a state church, and we allow extremely broad freedoms for the exercise of religion and the expression of religious ideas. This was a natural outgrowth of Christian ideas, since in Christianity, salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ—a faith that cannot be compelled by force. Accordingly, from the Christian perspective, there is very little point in using the state to enforce religious adherence.

Now, I’m neither claiming that Christians have always respected this reality nor that we’re the only ones who have. But this is precisely where the nationalism comes into the mix.

Western Toleration Comes from Christianity’s Growth

The Western tendency to tolerate different creeds proceeded from the blood and chaos that different Christians inflicted on one another during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. It took considerable time and effort to accept this understanding and begin teaching our governments to loosen their grip on the religious habits of their citizens. This effort hinged on the experiences of many different groups of Christians who sought out places where they could freely adhere to their creeds.

So our religious freedom is not simply an abstract ideal floating in the ether, but a heritage—a specifically Christian one. It is precisely English Christians of that sort who learned this very Christian lesson and brought it with them to this land, where they eventually grew into their own Christian nation. It was also those Christians who decided to extend that Christian freedom to the believers on other creeds.

Our religious freedom is not simply an abstract ideal floating in the ether, but a heritage—a specifically Christian one.

Nevertheless, extending that freedom to other faiths never made it religiously neutral. On the contrary, we embedded our religious understanding of such freedom into the way we governed—blatantly privileging Christianity over other religions.

After all, in most other religions, goodness—however it may be conceived—proceeds from a person’s works as much or more than from his faith. State requirements to make the right sacrifices, participate in the right ceremonies, or live in the proper manner make a great deal more sense in other religions. Likewise, religions that demand the infidels be slaughtered wherever they may be found tend to be far less willing to allow those infidels the same kind of freedoms.

So even when America decides to allow the free exercise of all religions, that very decision privileges religions like Christianity, which are more focused on faith than on following specific laws. This can be seen in the way that free exercise has been judged through our history. In a post-9/11 world, it’s become abundantly clear that even flying planes into buildings can be an exercise of religion.

Where Religious Neutrality Ends

Nevertheless, though we put no prohibition on free exercise per se, we always drew the line at publicly immoral behaviors even when those behaviors are also religious duties for some. Certain faiths, for example, have explicitly allowed or encouraged bigamy, but for most of our history, this was never seriously considered an allowable matter of free exercise.

Not every religion sees the matter the same way. Not every religion even has a natural law tradition.

In decisions like that, the state was not and cannot be morally neutral, any more than it was or can be religiously neutral. In every decision, it weighs one set of goods against another and decides which is of more value.

In America, the weight of those past decisions have always been rooted in the values of the Christians who founded and cultivated this nation. Their substance is indelibly colored by Christianity. Our Declaration of Independence hinges the entire matter of independence on the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” and ascribes our rights to endowment by the Creator.

These are by no means religiously neutral statements. They are not sectarian, grounded as they are in the language of natural law, but they are nevertheless grounded in a Christian understanding of that natural law. Not every religion sees the matter the same way. Not every religion even has a natural law tradition.

Common Objections Don’t Hold Water

Some would object to this line of thought, claiming that our nation really founded as much by deists rather than Christians. There were certainly a few prominent ones in the mix, but it doesn’t weaken my case in the slightest.

No nation is beholden to religious neutrality, no matter what freedoms it grants.

Deism itself was always an attempt to possess a Christian heritage without possessing a Christian faith. What’s more, the reason deism went defunct so quickly is that this attempt was almost immediately found to be a fool’s errand. The only remaining progeny of deism are those who returned to Christianity and those who proceeded down the road to atheism. Inasmuch as deists contributed to the founding of this nation, they were still operating under the inertia of the Christian heritage they had received.

Others would claim that our religious liberty is no longer Christian because many non-Christian nations have also provided measures of religious freedom. This is true, and I’m quite pleased that they’ve culturally appropriated religious liberty from the Christian West. I believe my heritage to be of value, so I think it’s great when others learn from it.

But that appropriation does not change where our own liberty came from. Neither does it change the fact that these other nations have modified religious liberty according to their own religious understandings. Israel, for example, allows for a great deal of religious liberty, but it is no more religiously neutral than America is. After all, simply believing that Jesus Christ is the messiah voids the right of return granted by Israel to other ethnic Jews. No nation is beholden to religious neutrality, no matter what freedoms it grants.

The Habit of Toleration Can Go Too Far

To be sure, our more recent history has seen a remarkable shift away from our Christian heritage and its moral wisdom. Under the guise of religious neutrality, too many Christians have been tricked into withholding their good judgment from matters of state. This has led to some profound changes, but there’s nothing religiously or morally neutral about them.

We have, for instance, allowed women to choose whether to murder their offspring, but this is not neutrality—in this, the state blatantly values personal autonomy and privacy more than it values love or the right to live. We have forced people to speak as though men are actually women or act as though two women can be married to one-another, but this is not neutral—it demands that Christians set aside their understanding of marriage and sex. Even something as simple as getting rid of blasphemy laws that respected the name of Jesus Christ was never “fair” or neutral—it only cleared the way for new blasphemy laws that respect sexual deviancy and other politically correct subjects du jour instead.

Christian nationalism is rising precisely because more and more Christians are realizing that we’ve been lied to on the matter. We were persuaded to set aside our heritage in public based on a faulty notion of neutrality and the expectation that everyone else would do the same. But everyone else has done no such thing, and we should never have expected or asked them to. We allowed our religious values to be replaced by others’ religious values and, unsurprisingly, have little to show for our foolishness.

If you Think Christianity Is Valuable, You’re a Nationalist

Christian nationalism is not an attempt to requisition the state to teach Christian theology—it would be even less competent at this than it is at all other types of education. Neither is it in any way an incitement to the largely hypothetical violence over which the statement’s authors wring their hands.

It is simply American Christians who believe that their religion is true and their nation valuable contending for their own convictions about goodness, truth, and beauty rather than for others’. We are not “merging” our two identities, as the statement alleges, but holding onto both of them in everything that we do.

Far from destroying American democracy and religious liberty, Christian nationalism embodies the very same spirit that built that heritage of ours in the first place.

Matthew’s writing may be found at The 96th Thesis. You can also follow him on Twitter @matt_e_cochran or subscribe to his YouTube Channel, Lutheran in a Strange Land.
“Memorial”by happyfunpaul is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0



Wisconsin Bill Assaults Confessional Seal


Aug 9, 2019 By Bill Donohue


Confessional Booth (Photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)

A bill to bust the seal of the confessional will soon be introduced by three Democratic lawmakers from Wisconsin: Sen. Lena Taylor, Rep. Chris Taylor and Rep. Melissa Sargent. The clergy in Wisconsin are already mandated reporters of sexual abuse; this bill would remove the exemption afforded the confessional.

The sponsors of the bill have provided no evidence that this bill would remedy anything. Indeed, they cannot cite one case of sexual abuse that would have been reported to the authorities had the religious exemption for the confessional not existed.

This bill is a monumental flop. Not only does it not solve anything, it will  not convince a single priest to subject himself to excommunication for violating his vows. Moreover, a lawsuit will immediately be filed challenging this violation of the First Amendment by state officials.

The government has no business policing the sacraments of the Catholic Church. This is nothing but grandstanding by politicians pretending to be champions of the victims of sexual abuse.

Why don’t these brave lawmakers go after the lawyer-client privilege? Don’t attorneys learn of instances of the sexual abuse of minors? Why not target psychologists and psychiatrists as well? They hear about cases of sexual abuse, yet they are forbidden to violate their professional commitment to their patients.

Why are Catholic priests being singled out? This is religious profiling. Indeed, the bill is manifestly anti-Catholic.

We are contacting every member of the Wisconsin legislature today about this bill. The state needs to back off and keep its hands out of the internal affairs of the Catholic Church or any other religion. We see this as a national issue, one that has grave implications for religious liberty throughout the country.

Bill Donohue is President and CEO of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the nation’s largest Catholic civil rights organization. He was awarded his Ph.D. in sociology from New York University and is the author of eight books and many articles.


School Lifts Ban On ‘Bible Day’

Settles lawsuit to allow religious expression by students


A California school district has ended a lawsuit by lifting its ban on “Bring Your Bible to School Day.”

The religious-liberty group Freedom X said the settlement will require the district to change its policies and pay some $15,000 for the lawyers in the case.

In a 4-0 vote this week, the Huntington Beach City School District board of trustees endorsed a policy change that will permit “students to engage in religious expression without fear of reprisal.”

The dispute began when the principal of John R. Peterson Elementary School was accused of violating the First Amendment rights of two students who sought to hand out flyers to other students promoting “Bring Your Bible to School Day” during lunch and recess.

Freedom X said the case was brought on behalf of M.B. and N.B., who are children in the district.

The claim in the United States District Court in Orange County, California, alleged violations of the constitutional rights of the 10-year-old fourth-grader and his younger brother, a second-grader.

The principal, Constance Pohhemus, was accused of violating their First Amendment right to freedom of speech and the free exercise of their religion by refusing to allow them to distribute the promotional flyers at any time during the school day, including lunch and recess, due to their religious content.

“Too often parents fail to act when their children’s’ schools push an anti-religious agenda,” said Freedom X president and chief counsel Bill Becker. “This case demonstrates how a single parent can win back religious freedom in our public schools by taking action.”

The new policy allows students to participate in the free exercise of religious expression, including flyer distribution during non-class times.

“Bring Your Bible to School Day” has been a national event for several years. It was intended to empower students to celebrate religious freedom and share God’s hope with their friends.

Freedom X explained it is “well-settled” law that the First Amendment protects all student expression, including literature distribution during non-instructional time.

Original here

Sponsor Pulls California Bill Attacking Clergy

Would have undermined protections for communications with penitents


The sponsor of a California bill that threatened the confidentiality of communications between members of the clergy and penitents abruptly pulled the plan from consideration.

The Pacific Justice Institute explained the danger posed by the bill, S.B. 360 from California Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

It “would have required clergy to report certain confessions to the government,” Pacific Justice explained.

“The bill would have further restricted ministers by excluding clergy penitential communications from long established legal protections including ‘spiritual direction’ and ‘religious counseling.’”

“This proposed law could not be reconciled with the First Amendment,” said PJI attorney Kevin Snider. “SB 360 was an attempt to sweep away centuries of clergy-penitent protections, forcing clergy members to choose between criminal prosecution or spiritual peril.”

Brad Dacus, president of PJI, commented: “We are immensely relieved that this misguided legislation has been shelved this year. We commend our legislators who recognized that this bill is harmful and raises grave constitutional problems for clergy protecting the confessions and confidences entrusted to them.”

The proposal already had been approved by the Senate, 30-4.

But members of the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee argued it violated the First Amendment, and in a surprising reversal, Hill pulled the plan from consideration.

The California Catholic Conference said in a statement the withdrawal of the bill “follows the delivery of tens of thousands of letters, emails and phone calls from Catholics and others concerned with the free expression of religion.”

The bill, the National Catholic Register reported, was developed to require priests and others to “alert local law enforcement about any knowledge or suspicion of child abuse received while hearing the confession of another priest or colleague,” the report said.

Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles said in the report, “If any legislature can force believers to reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings shared with God in confession, then truly there is no area of human life that is free or safe from government intrusion.”

Hill, in a statement, said he still supports his plan but recognized he didn’t have enough support in the Assembly.

He described the bill as being “on pause.”

In a commentary in the Washington Examiner, Ryan Everson said Hill’s move was “a bit of a shock.”

He said Hill and the California Democrats may not have withdrawn the bill “for the best reasons, but regardless, it’s a win that California Catholics and all advocates of religious freedom should celebrate.”


Justice Thomas Provides Clarity on the Memorial Cross

By Terence P. Jeffrey | June 26, 2019 | 4:37 AM EDT

The World War I memorial cross in Bladensburg, Maryland. (Photo by Eric Baradat//AFP/Getty Images)

Ninety-nine years ago, Democrat Sen. John Walter Smith of Maryland provided $50 of his own — not government — money to help erect a cross in his home state.

He was responding to a request from Mrs. Martin Redman, a mother who had lost her son in World War I.

To honor him and the 48 other men from Prince George’s County who had lost their lives in the war, she had joined the Prince George’s Memorial Committee, whose goal was to erect a memorial not far from the Maryland border with the District of Columbia.

In a thank-you note, she told the senator that her son “lost his life in France and because of that I feel that our memorial cross is, in a way, his grave stone.”

Indeed, as the American Legion pointed out in a brief to the Supreme Court (which appended Redman’s letter), “the Peace Cross’s private builders used a cross to mirror the gravemarkers under which their loved ones were buried abroad.”

In an opinion released last week, Justice Samuel Alito noted that “the local post of the American Legion” took over responsibility for building the memorial in 1922, when the committee’s fundraising lagged. The memorial — “a 32-foot tall Latin cross” — was finished in 1925.

The pedestal, Alito wrote, “features a 9- by 2.5-foot bronze plaque explaining that the monument is ‘Dedicated to the heroes of Prince George’s County, Maryland who lost their lives in the Great War for the liberty of the world.”

“The plaque,” noted Alito, “list the names of the 49 local men, both black and white, who died in the war.”

Thirty-six years after the cross was completed, Maryland took control of it.

“In 1961, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission acquired the Cross and the land on which it sits in order to preserve the monument and address traffic-safety concerns,” said Alito.

By doing this, did Maryland establish a state religion?

Did it violate the first words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”?

In 2015, the American Humanist Association filed suit saying it did. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled for it. The American Legion appealed to the Supreme Court.

In a decision released last week, where Alito wrote the opinion of the court, Justice Clarence Thomas, in a concurring opinion, spoke to the merits of the case with logic and clarity.

He did so by following the reasoning he has laid out in previous First Amendment cases.

In 2002, for example, the court voted 5-4 in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris to uphold a Cleveland school choice program that allowed participating students to attend religious schools. Opponents argued this violated the Establishment Clause.

Thomas decisively rebutted them.

“The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment states that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,'” Thomas wrote then. “On its face, this provision places no limit on the states with regard to religion. The Establishment Clause originally protected states, and by extension their citizens, from the imposition of an established religion by the Federal Government. Whether and how this Clause should constrain state action under the Fourteenth Amendment is a more difficult question.”

“The Fourteenth Amendment fundamentally restructured the relationship between individuals and the States and ensured that States would not deprive citizens of liberty without due process of law,” Thomas continued.

“It guarantees citizenship to all individuals born or naturalized in the United States,” he wrote, “and provides that ‘(n)o State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

“When rights are incorporated against the States through the Fourteenth Amendment they should advance, not constrain, individual liberty,” Thomas wrote.

“Thus,” he concluded in 2002, “while the Federal Government may ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion,’ the States may pass laws that include or touch on religious matters so long as these laws do not impede free exercise rights or any other individual liberty interest.”

Thomas applied this logic to the Bladensburg Cross.

“The local commission has not attempted to control religious doctrine or personnel, compel religious observance, single out a particular religious denomination for exclusive state subsidization, or punish dissenting worship,” he wrote last week in American Legion v. American Humanist Association.

“Instead,” Thomas said, “the commission has done something that the founding generation, as well as the generation that ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, would have found commonplace: displaying a religious symbol on government property.”

“In an action claiming an unconstitutional establishment of religion,” Thomas concluded, “the plaintiff must demonstrate that he was actually coerced by government conduct that shares the characteristics of an establishment as understood at the founding.”

People driving by the Peace Cross are only coerced to stay in their lane and keep to the speed limit.

As we learned when the Obama administration tried to coerce Christians into buying abortifacient coverage in their health insurance plans, the greater threat to freedom in this era is not that the government will impose a religion on us but that it will prevent us from faithfully practicing the one we embrace.

Terence P. Jeffrey is the editor in chief of CNSNews.com.


The Truth About the Separation of Church and State

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The words “separation of Church and State” are not found anywhere in the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or the Declaration of Independence. Yet, every day, you hear that you can or cannot do something in a public place because of the “separation of Church and State.”

Issue Analysis

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution reads:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

So where did the phrase “separation of Church and State” come from?

This phrase came from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to a group of Christians from the Baptist denomination. These Christians were concerned that accepting the Constitution could ultimately allow the federal government to restrict religious freedom. Jefferson reassured them in this letter that the Constitution “build[s] a wall of separation between Church and State,” which would protect them from the government interfering with their religious beliefs. (You can read the whole letter for yourself on the Library of Congress’s website: www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9806/danpre.html.)

Thus the phrase was designed to explain that the government could not cross over to interfere in the Church’s affairs. But, in 1947, the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Everson v. Board of Education took that phrase and turned it backwards to mean that religion must not be allowed to influence the State’s affairs.

Talking Points

  • The phrase of “separation of Church and State” is not in the Constitution. When Thomas Jefferson first wrote that phrase in a letter to a Baptist church, he was explaining that the government could not cross over to interfere in the Church’s affairs.
  • The Constitution doesn’t only guarantee our “freedom to worship” but also our freedom to practice and promote our faith. Americans don’t have to leave their faith and convictions at their church door; we have the right to carry them with us in all aspects of our lives.


Since 1947, anti-religious groups have used the term “separation of Church and State” to silence people of faith from speaking about their religious beliefs in the public square. But, in many cases, this is just an intimidation tactic and is not legally accurate.

This is particularly true for students in public schools and colleges. You have the right to speak about your faith, pray, lead a Bible study, and more!

Contact Center for Arizona Policy (CAP) at legal@azpolicy.org for more information regarding your rights to freely exercise your religious beliefs in the public square.

© January 2014 Center for Arizona Policy, Inc. All rights reserved.
This publication includes summaries of many complex areas of law and is not specific legal advice to any person. Consult an attorney if you have questions about your specific situation or believe your legal rights have been infringed. This publication is educational in nature and should not be construed as an effort to aid or hinder any legislation.

Churches and Pastors

What Churches and Pastors Can and Cannot Do


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Churches have a major role to play in addressing the cultural and moral issues of our day. The voice of the church matters. In times such as these when we see timeless values under attack all around us in our society, the need for the Church to be a strong voice for biblical truth is more critical than ever.

Issue Analysis

Many churches and pastors have questions about how much they can be involved, particularly when it comes to election time. This hesitation has caused many churches to withdraw from the public arena instead of engaging in the debate. Many pastors believe they must keep silent because of their position of leadership in the church. This is simply not the case.

Although certain limitations are imposed by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax code and campaign laws, churches and pastors have many legal avenues for speaking on vital moral issues.

The following guidelines, as well as the chart on page 3, are based on Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and publications by the IRS. They are designed to provide general guidance in determining how churches may be involved in public policy, the legislative process, and in elections. We recommend, however, that a church seek legal advice before making specific plans for action. Center for Arizona Policy’s (CAP) legal department is available as a free resource to you on these issues, so please contact us at 602-424-2525 or legal@azpolicy.org.

Legislative Activity

Generally speaking, as nonprofit entities regulated under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, churches may engage in limited attempts to “influence legislation” and still qualify for nonprofit tax status. However, the activity must not constitute more than an “insubstantial” part of a church’s overall activity, including time and money. The amount allowed by the code is not clear-cut.

A fairly safe gauge is to limit legislative activity to less than 5 percent of the church’s overall activity. In some cases, the IRS has allowed activity between 5 and 20 percent; but more than 20 percent has been found unacceptable.

“Legislative activity” is any activity intended to influence legislation – bills before the U.S. Congress or state legislature, measures before city councils, initiatives, and referenda. These activities include: directly contacting elected officials about legislation, urging church members and others to communicate with legislators about legislation, and circulating petitions related to legislation.

As long as a church stays within the appropriate amount of activity, it may engage in any or all of these activities. What does all this mean? If your church budget is $1,000,000, you can safely spend up to $50,000 directly influencing legislation – sending a mailing to church members asking them to call legislators on a bill to regulate abortion or urging them to vote against an initiative to expand gambling, for example.

Pastors, you can mention the bill number by name from the pulpit and give out contact information for key legislators. You can preach about gambling, abortion, or homosexuality, and then urge your members to call their elected officials on a particular bill related to the issue.

Moreover, a pastor has complete freedom to preach about biblical perspectives on current social issues without discussing any specific pending legislation. There is no limit when preaching in general terms about social issues.

Election and Political Campaigns

The IRS code is far more restrictive on churches and other nonprofit organizations in election activities. Partisan activity is prohibited completely, including engaging in any activity in support of or opposition to any candidate for political office or involvement in the political campaign of a candidate. However, some nonpartisan activity, particularly voter registration and voter education, is allowed.

Not only can you register voters at your church, you are free to endorse and distribute to all your church members nonpartisan voter guides that do not endorse candidates, but provide all candidates with an opportunity to answer questions on a variety of issues.

There is no legal restriction whatsoever on the ability of churches to register voters or provide them candidate survey information — in other words, funds and time spent on these activities are not counted toward the 5 percent limitation discussed above. No limitations are placed on church members, including pastors, when acting as private individuals and not on behalf of the church, as long as no church facilities or resources are used.

The Unique Voice of Pastors

Pastors have every right to speak out on the moral and political issues of our time. As discussed above, pastors can encourage their churches to be involved in the policy making process, even to the extent of specifically mentioning issues or pending bills. When it comes to political campaigns, pastors should make it clear that their church does not endorse specific candidates for office. As individuals, pastors are free to endorse, support, and donate money to political candidates.

Political Involvement for Churches and Pastors

This list is designed to provide an overview of the standards for church political involvement. It is not meant to provide specific legal advice and is not an exhaustive list.


Church Activity Permissible?
Conduct nonpartisan voter registration Yes
Conduct nonpartisan ‘get-out-the-vote” activities Yes
Distribute nonpartisan voter guides Yes
Distribute nonpartisan voting records Yes
Support or oppose legislation Yes
Support or oppose ballot initiatives Yes
Support or oppose political or judicial nominee Yes
Support or oppose political candidates No
Candidate speaks at church (not identified as candidate; campaign not mentioned) Yes
Host forum for political candidates (all candidates invited) Yes
Political fundraising Yes
Sale or rent church list to candidate at market value (available to all candidates) Yes
Provide link on church’s website to candidate’s campaign website No
Contribute to political candidates No
Contribute to political action committees (PACs) No
Offer bulletin or newsletter ads at market rate Yes
Pastor Activity Permissible?
Conduct nonpartisan voter registration Yes
Distribute nonpartisan voter guides Yes
Distribute nonpartisan voting records Yes
Support or oppose legislation Yes
Support or oppose ballot initiative Yes
Support or oppose political or judicial nominee Yes
As an individual, pastor endorses or opposes political candidate (no church resources or facilities used) Yes
Pastor endorses or opposes political candidate from pulpit No
As an individual, political fundraising (no church resources or facilities used) Yes
As an individual, contribute to political candidates (no church resources or facilities used) Yes
As an individual, contribute to political action committees (PACs) (no church resources or facilities used) Yes
Conduct nonpartisan get out the vote measures Yes

Questions: For more information see IRS Publication 1828 and Fact Sheet 2006-17, both available at www.irs.gov or contact CAP’s legal department: 602-424-2525 or legal@azpolicy.org.

Talking Points:

  • The First Amendment protects the rights of churches and religious leaders to speak out on public issues.Churches have the right to speak about the critical issues of our time.
  • Churches and pastors are free to register voters, distribute nonpartisan voter guides, and even take positions on ballot initiatives and referendums.Center for Arizona Policy (CAP) is here to serve ministry leaders. If there is ever any question about your rights, call the CAP office at 602-424-2525.


We hope this document makes clear that churches can do much to help their constituents become salt and light in our state and country. God ordained the institution of government to serve certain purposes, and Christians who are committed to seeing our laws and culture reflect biblical wisdom and righteousness have every right to participate and have our voice heard in the marketplace of ideas.

© May 2018 Center for Arizona Policy, Inc. All rights reserved. This publication includes summaries of many complex areas of law and is not specific legal advice to any person. Consult an attorney if you have questions about your specific situation or believe your legal rights have been infringed. This publication is educational in nature and should not be construed as an effort to aid or hinder any legislation.

Churches and Pastors