Dr. Amy Harris Hartsfield
Counselor and Assessment
As Christians, we are baptized into the citizenship of God’s Kingdom. Christian citizenship provides us with rights & responsibilities. We have the right of access to God’s presence and God’s power. We have the responsibility to love God, ourselves, each other, and all of God’s creation. Faith leaders are called to lead and assist persons in the process of becoming “responsible Christian Citizens.”
But we are not only citizens of God’s Kingdom, we are also citizens of the various cities, counties, states and countries in which we reside. Similarly we have rights & responsibilities. We have the rights to services, processes, and in some cases goods.
We also have responsibilities which include the participation in the development, implementation, and oversight of governance. Given this dual citizenship, 1) what is the role of faith leaders in promoting responsible citizenship in both faith & secular venues, and 2) how is this done?
As I further explored this matter, I engaged in conversations with faith leaders & members of faith congregations. All agreed that vital to being a productive citizen, whether in the faith kingdom or in the private sector, involves understanding & exercising one’s rights and responsibilities. All also agreed that leadership, guidance, and information dissemination are crucial components of the process.
So, should faith leaders & communities, with intentionality, be involved in promoting responsible faith & secular citizenship? A resounding yes! The question is how.
A starting point could be understanding the stipulations of political and candidate engagement permissible for a 501(c)(3) organization. The statute is clear – the manner of application will be determined by each entity.
With that in mind, I offer the following resource from the website of the United Church of Christ, www.ucc.org/OurFaithOurVote
Guidelines for Congregations and Clergy on Political Action
“Political Activities of Churches are Limited Due to IRS Tax Exempt Status. Almost all churches are tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code on the basis that they are “operated exclusively for religious, charitable or educational purposes.”
As a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, a church:
– is exempt from paying corporate income taxes, and donations to it are tax deductible on federal tax returns
– may expend funds for religious, charitable and educational purposes, and an insubstantial amount on lobbying and to promote legislation. A 501(c)(3) exempt organization may not “participate in, political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.”
Political activities are quite broad and range from contributions to a political candidate to discussing public policies and election-year issues to publishing the voting records of incumbents running for re-election. Only some of these activities are considered active “electioneering,” which cannot be done by a church.
There are no restrictions on educating church members about election-year issues and promoting discussion of public policy. However, your church is prohibited from expressing its support for or opposition to any candidate during the discussion of issues and policies if it wishes to
maintain its tax-exempt status.
Other kinds of unrestricted political activity include holding voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, preparing and distributing nonpartisan voter guides and voting records, and sponsoring candidate forums and debates.
Clergy and church leaders have the same rights as every American citizen and may fully participate in political campaigns as individuals; however, they must announce that they are acting on their own behalf and not on behalf of the church.
My joy is to see followers of Christ actively engaged in using their gifts, and blazing trails in effectively reaching the world with the transforming power of the gospel. As a servant leader of Christ’s church, I want to do for others what my leaders and mentors did for me: facilitate that transformational connection between life on the ground and scripture/theology.
I see the Christian faith as a journey, a way of life. Many people can affirm that “church” is the people, not the building, but were that to become a reality in how we actually function, the church would be transformed. I’m fond of using the designation “follower of Christ.” As I read the gospels, the essence of the call of Jesus is action: going, sending, doing.