Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell wrote a provocative column, “Preachers Belong in the Pulpit, Not in Politics” recently and got me to really thinking. I believe that ministers should be engaged in the civic activities of communities, educating their congregations about issues and providing a forum through which ideas may be shared.
Churches should be relevant to their congregations and local communities without compromising their roles in being the “salt of the earth,” so to speak.
Publicly endorsing candidates is a slippery slope. As heads of tax-exempt organizations, ministers should be cognizant of IRS rules and regulations regarding political engagement of nonprofits.
Taking partisan positions, endorsing candidates and the like, could lead to the churches being investigated by the IRS, and could put the church’s tax exemption at risk.
As a practical matter, pastors and the clergy should be close enough to the political scene to understand the issues and advocate for improvements for the community. They should not be so close to candidates that they cannot remain objective and hold them accountable.
When pastors (like any other employee of a tax exempt organization) go on the political trail with a candidate in their roles as pastors of churches, they cross the line. It is a conflict of interest, in that their loyalties could be divided between what is best for the candidate and his/her political position and the positions they should take as heads of churches and community leaders. They should also be cognizant of the separation of church and state.
I have seen the consequences of pastors “crossing the line” and it ain’t pretty. Many churches in Chicago are viewed as extensions of the political system. With few exceptions, most pastors, given the choice between going along with the political establishment and taking a stand with and for the community, seem to go with the flow, to the detriment of the community.
For example, not one prominent pastor I know spoke out against massive school closings in communities where their parishioners reside. Some of the same pastors, however, advocate for the expansion of charter schools in communities where schools closed for “under-utilization” or engage in lucrative deals where they benefit from the expansion of charter schools.
They dare not speak out on the injustices done to “the least of these” because they are benefiting indirectly, or are fearful of jeopardizing another project that needs the blessing of the powers that be (and I’m not talking about God).
On the surface, churches where pastors cross the line of appropriate civic engagement seem to prosper — having publicly funded programs, building new church buildings, community centers, etc.
However, ever so slowly, over time the power of God working within them begins to fade. The pastors become more beholden to the political powers that be, and lose their spiritual edge. At this stage, they cannot operate at their optimal levels of effectiveness in the Kingdom of God.
Their churches, in turn, become less impactful to the spiritual growth of the parishioners and surrounding community.
Valerie Leonard is a West Side community development consultant and activist.