Church and politics can be a powerful and a volatile mix. Witness some of the comments documented by Pittsburgh’s Action News 4 inside a Pittsburgh-area church during a campaign stop this week by Republican candidate for governor, Doug Mastriano.
Watch the report in the video player above.
“Get ready for a great ‘blood of Jesus’ red wave!” said local pastor Bruce Schafer, as those gathered inside Grace Life Church on McKnight Road cheered. His words mixed imagery of Christ’s blood, sacred to Christians, with the political metaphor of a large election turnout of Republican voters.
Another image and name was projected and filled the front of the sanctuary, from floor to ceiling, inside Grace Life Church for the event; not the face of Jesus but of Mastriano, who the pastor repeatedly praised as “our next governor.”
“We are now a red city and we got a wonderful man of God as a governor,” Schafer shouted to the cheering crowd as he urged Mastriano to step up and speak.
Mastriano himself raised the issue to the congregation: the costs of political endorsements for the church.
“I don’t know why we’re standing aside. Are we standing aside because of the fear, the threat of losing tax exemption? So, for a couple dollars, you don’t want to step in and have influence in government?” Mastriano asked the audience.
Pittsburgh’s Action News 4 spoke with Philip Hackney, an associate professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, who is an expert on the topic and who worked at the IRS national office, overseeing the tax-exempt sector.
“They can’t come out for or against a candidate for public office. If they do, they are subject to losing their tax-exempt status going forward from that point,” Hackney said.
The IRS Tax Guide for churches and religious organizations says both “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in any political campaign on behalf of any candidate.”
As for enforcement of those rules, Hackey said, “This is the complex question about it. I mean, it is the law and the IRS has enforced it. Has it enforced it lately? Not so much.”
We also reached out to local and national religious experts for their thoughts.
“From my vantage point, as a theological educator, the role of the church in America has always been to advocate issues related to our particular core values,” the Rev. Dr. Asa Lee, president of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, told Pittsburgh’s Action News 4.
“That may mean, at times, those issues or our particular position on the issue may align with a particular political party. But despite the political party, our job is to name the issues,” Lee said.
He recounted how, when he served as a pastor, when a candidate asked to speak at his church, he would invite their political opponent as well.
“So we were not in the position of being an endorser of any one candidate. If we had one candidate, we had them all,” Lee said. “If you had one person show up, you’d have them all show up or at least make the invitation.”
Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty executive director Amanda Tyler doesn’t see an upside to churches endorsing political candidates.
“I can only think of downsides from the church’s perspective. For one, that is a deeply divisive act to take, to take a position in an active political campaign for or against a particular candidate for office,” she said.
“The major concern is what that political activity can do to your congregation and how it distracts you from your core mission of carrying out the gospel in the world around you,” Tyler said, “which of course is to worship and serve God in the broader community.”