RIO RANCHO, N.M.—The Calvary Chapel of Rio Rancho sits off highway 528, just north of Albuquerque, a short drive that seems to hit every traffic light in the state. It’s Sunday, and the traffic’s worse than usual. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has filled the city and its suburbs—like Rio Rancho—with tourists. Nobody really minds. As we park and walk into the chapel, we can see the balloons lift off in the main field. The ushers are just especially thankful that we skipped the carnival food and inflated cartoon characters in favor of a sermon.
We’re expecting something special. Today, Oct. 7, is the fifth annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday. At least 1,500 pastors will give sermons about politics. This is raw politics, premeditated violations of the IRS’s tax exemption guidelines. Their message: Come and get us. Go on. Sue us. See what happens.
Calvary Chapel’s pastor, Robert Hall, was one of the first guys into the pool. In 2008, he joined 30 other pastors and gave a political sermon. Nothing happened. (He’d given $700 to Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign, but was otherwise on the campaign sidelines.) In 2009, the number of pastors expanded, and Hall gave another sermon. Nothing. Every year he’d talk, and the IRS would ignore him. Finally, on “the Monday before Easter” this year, the IRS sent him notice it was “looking into it.”
Hall offers me the drink he usually gets after a sermon—a salted caramel mocha from the chapel’s café, served in a Tigger mug—and pronounces the threat to be ineffective. “I just laughed at the subtlety. That’s almost harassment. But apart from that they’ve never said a word to me.”
That’s the beauty and the problem of Pulpit Freedom Day. Churches, by long-standing tax law and constitutional tradition, are tax-exempt 501c3s. They don’t even have to apply for 501c3 status. They don’t have to file 990 tax returns. The Obama administration has not shaken down churches—literally none of them have been prosecuted for political speech since Obama took office, since the IRS dropped a case against a pastor in Rep. Michele Bachmann’s district.
But pastors argue that the 1954 “Johnson amendment” has had a silencing effect, as Lyndon Johnson intended when he changed the law governing tax-exempt organizations. The amendment threatened revocation of status for institutions that “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of—or in opposition to—any candidate for public office.” That didn’t stop religious leaders from barreling into politics. One year after the amendment passed, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a bus boycott in Montgomery. But today’s conservative pastors pine for a time when they could mobilize their congregations without any sort of end-runs or careful wording.
In their Oct. 7 sermons, the Pulpit Freedom pastors describe a culture that is at war with them and a government that makes war on them. So, in California, Jim Garlow gets into the weeds on fiscal policy and explains just how irresponsible the federal government is. “When somebody talks about a Balanced Budget Amendment that holds Congress not to spend more than they take in, that holds them to 18 percent of GDP, that holds them to not raising taxes without a supermajority, that is not some wild-eyed idea from economic theory,” he says. “That is spiritual principle that comes from the Bible, particularly from the book of Proverbs.” And how has the Johnson Amendment helped with that problem? “How’s that worked out for us in the last 58 years? How have our communities been doing, how has our nation been doing with pastors silenced in the pulpit?”
In Maryland, Harry Jackson devotes his sermon to “reasons why I cannot vote for Barack Obama.” Chief among them: gay marriage. “We can’t say, as many people in the black community are saying today: He had to do this, to raise money! No. He didn’t have to put that in the platform. … He didn’t have to make a show of putting the name of God back in the platform.” He simplifies the argument. “You’re against marriage? We’re against you.”