Is It Even Legal for a Pastor to Endorse a Political Candidate? If So, Should You?

We’re headlong into election season right now with the wrap up of the RNC last week and the kick off of the DNC this week—and with that, many ministry leaders are contemplating a couple of important questions: “Should I endorse a candidate—and is that even legal!?”

Every couple of days we hear another sound bite of a high-profile ministry leader who’s finally, reluctantly, coyly, endorsing a political candidate. It was James Dobson last week, Robert Jeffress a few weeks before that, and who can forget Jerry Falwell Jr.’s raving support for Trump at one of Liberty University’s chapel services?

Are they breaking the law by endorsing a candidate?

The quick answer: No.

There is a difference between being a public faith leader (without a church) and being a pastor within one. That’s one important note. High-profile faith leaders who lead for-profit organizations aren’t prohibited from endorsing candidates. However, it does get a little tricky for pastors, like Robert Jeffress, to do so.

Here’s a summary of what the IRS says about religious organizations and political involvement (you can read the complete document here):

“Churches and religious 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 public office….Violation of this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of excise tax.”

So, it’s pretty clear that your church is not allowed to be involved in the political arena—beyond voter education—without coming in danger of losing tax-exempt status. But hold on, this concerns the church, the regulations for the pastor are a little different.

It reads: “The political campaign activity prohibition isn’t intended to restrict free expression on political matters by leaders of churches or religious organizations speaking for themselves, as individuals.”

So, technically, you can talk about politics outside the pulpit all day long (although, the IRS does say it will help create a clear distinction if you clarify the fact that you’re speaking as an individual and not a representative of the church).

And that’s how Robert Jeffress slides by with his Donald Trump endorsement—he’s not saying that the church endorses Trump, but that Jeffress, as an individual, does so. I know, still feels a bit squishy.

So, to answer the first question: Yes, in a roundabout and personal way, outside of the pulpit, you’re cleared to share your personal political preferences and endorse candidates.

Now, to the next question—should you?

Honestly, the practice of ministry leaders endorsing a political candidate is a bit odd, and it’s steeped in pragmatism instead of critical thinking. The people you lead don’t need to be handheld to the polls, but they do need to know the important issues at stake. Like what the Bible has to say about immigration, the sanctity of life, gun control, equality, health care, systemic poverty, economic systems and the church’s role within them.

This is the hard road of leadership—investing ourselves in the important issues of our day with clear, consistent biblical truth. Our job is to connect the dots between biblical values and cultural events with careful and honest takeaways—being cautious not to stuff our truths with individual preferences and personal soap boxes.

Because, at the end of the day, we want our people to think for themselves and to learn to listen, deeply, to the both the Word of God and the Holy Spirit’s voice within them. This is the long-game we’re in and it’s not about pushing the easy button, pointing to a candidate or checking a box—it’s about discipleship.

We need to trust that God is at work, moving through his people to bring about justice, beauty, hope and truth. And we need to preach something greater than an American Gospel. We need to preach the true Gospel in all its glory—a message that spans all of time and space and pierces eternity; and one that sees this election, like many others in the past, as a fleeting blip on the scale of God’s great plan for his people. A plan that will not be thwarted by any candidate—no matter how wonderful, wicked, unqualified or annoying we might picture them to be.

In the end, endorsing a candidate, for most pastors, is a losing endeavor. You could split your church down the middle, offend new or not-yet believers, and unwittingly uphold a governmental system above the Kingdom of God.

Besides, we have something so much greater to endorse than political candidates.

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Brian Orme
Brian is a writer and editor from Ohio. He works with creative and innovative people to discover the top stories, resources and trends to equip and inspire the Church.