Blogs > Cliopatria > Speaking Truth to Power, Gathering Votes for Power, and Doing It Tax-Free

Feb 17, 2006 4:56 am

Speaking Truth to Power, Gathering Votes for Power, and Doing It Tax-Free

In November 2005, the Internal Revenue Service sent a warning letter to a liberal Pasadena church, averring that an anti-war sermon delivered just before the 2004 election violated IRS guidelines for non-profit organizations. In mid-January 2006, thirty-one central Ohio clergymen signed a copiously documented complaint asking IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson to investigate two conservative evangelical churches whose promotion of gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell, among other things, apparently transgresses IRS rules as well.

So far the religious blogosphere has treated these matters as essentially political in nature: on the one hand, a Republican vendetta against the Pasadena church; on the other, mere"sour grapes" on the part of liberal churches not in sympathy with the goals of the conservative evangelical churches.

But as an historian, I'm curious to know about the origins of the prohibition on electioneering activity by non-profit organizations (I have read that it came at the initiative of Sen. Lyndon Johnson in the mid-1950s, but have not confirmed that). I'm also curious to know whether, during the Civil Rights era, instances arose in which the non-profit status of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and various anti-segregation churches was challenged because of voter registration drives. If similar guidelines existed in the 1960s, were civil rights-oriented churches careful to observe them, and/or did segregationists level charges of non-compliance as a cudgel with which to beat them?

Any information and insights would be appreciated. You'll find several posts on the Ohio clergy's IRS complaint at my kinder, gentler--and certainly not military--blog, Radical Civility.

UPDATE, February 16, 11:39 p.m. From the OMB Watch (that is, Office of Management and Budget Watch) web site:

Religious, charitable, educational and scientific organizations have been tax-exempt since 1913, although no political activity parameters were included in the first exemption statues. In 1954, however, Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson (D-TX) added the"express prohibition" on political campaign activity—without the benefit of hearings, testimony, or comment from affected organizations during Senate floor debate on the Internal Revenue Code. The amendment prohibits 501(c)(3) organizations from"participat[ing] in, or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office." The law was eventually applied to churches and now includes all 501(c)(3) organizations.

The genesis of Johnson's desire to reduce 501(c)(3) participation in elections reportedly stems from the great effect nonprofits had in campaigning against him,"by producing Red-baiting radio shows, television programs and millions of pieces of literature”; however, committee records demonstrate a general congressional mood towards increased regulation of nonprofit speech.

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Mark Grimsley - 2/19/2006

Tom, your comment belatedly reminded me of Father Coughlin and his lesser-known Protestant counterparts. Coughlin definitely championed specfic candidates, and so, probably, did others. I wonder if there were any philosophical objections to this at the time, since, as I mention in my earlier comment, the specific proscription against partisan political involvement dates from the mid-1950s.

I also wonder when the 501(h) provision was introduced.

Mark Grimsley - 2/18/2006

I've since learned that it was LBJ who added the prohibition re partisan political involvement. See this post.

Tom Bruscino - 2/17/2006

I think one of the high points, or maybe the high point, in twentieth century church participation in politics was the 1928 election. (Michael Williams, The Shadow of the Pope, is a great collection of the propaganda of that campaign. Allan Lichtman has written the best history of the subject.) That said, in the 1950s it was becoming increasingly clear that a Catholic was going to get a shot at the presidency or vice-presidency. I wonder if the prohibition on political campaigning was a bit of a preemptive shot in that effort.

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