Oct. 22, 2021
In the lead-up to next month’s gubernatorial election in Virginia, more than 300 churches are planning to show a pre-recorded campaign video featuring Vice President Kamala Harris in their morning worship service. In the video—which will be shown in predominantly African American churches—Harris encourages congregants to vote for Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe, Virginia’s former governor, who is in a tight and closely-watched race with Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin.
In the video, Harris says, “In 2020, more Virginians voted than ever before. And because you did, you helped send President Joe Biden and me to the White House. This year, I know that you will send Terry McAuliffe back to Richmond.” The vice president concludes her message by outlining why she believes congregants should vote for McAuliffe and asking them to vote after church.
Although CNN reported on the campaign advertisement this past weekend, coverage of churches’ plans to show the video was relatively sparse. But besides some social media discussion that questioned the propriety of playing campaign videos during a church service, the story appears to have faded from the news. However, the incident raises some important questions regarding churches and campaigns that Christians and especially pastors should consider.
First, Harris’ campaign video likely runs afoul of the Johnson Amendment to the IRS code. According to IRS regulations, churches are not allowed to engage in direct political campaign activity. Under the section “Charities, Churches and Politics” on their website, the IRS explains:
Currently, the law prohibits political campaign activity by charities and churches by defining a 501(c)(3) organization as one “which does not 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.”
To be clear, FRC is on record opposing the Johnson Amendment’s application to a pastor’s sermons because no government entity has the right to censor speech, whether in or out of the pulpit. That is almost certainly a violation of the First Amendment, but the IRS has not brought an enforcement action against a church sufficient to produce a successful constitutional challenge in court.
However, it is ironic that after months of issuing dire warnings about “Christian Nationalism” and the dangers of conflating religion and politics, the left is now actively engaging in the very campaign tactics they decry when practiced by those on the right. In fact, it is the height of hypocrisy to fuss about the “separation of church and state” and say conservative pastors should not engage the political process when they promote a campaign-style video designed to drum up support for Democrat Terry McAuliffe in churches.
But the controversy over the Harris video raises important questions: to what extent and in what ways is it appropriate for churches to engage in politics? How should pastors guide their congregations through elections? Before answering these questions, it is helpful to recall some truths about the church.
Theologian Gregg Allison defines the church as the “people of God who have been saved through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and have been incorporated into his body through baptism with the Holy Spirit.” While the universal church consists of every Christian since Pentecost, local churches, led by elders and deacons, “possess and pursue purity and unity, exercise church disciple, develop strong connections with other churches, and celebrate the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” In other words, a local church is a congregation of believers who have covenanted together and are committed to the regular means of grace, including the regular preaching and teaching of Scripture, observance of the ordinances, and fellowship.
In terms of purpose, the church exists to fulfill several important spiritual purposes. Theologian Wayne Grudem breaks down these purposes in terms of ministry to God, ministry to believers, and ministry to the world. First, when it comes to God, the church’s purpose is to worship him. Second, the church has an obligation to nurture the faith of its members and build them up in maturity (Col. 1:28). This primarily occurs through the regular preaching and teaching of the Bible. Third, churches are called to evangelize the lost and engage in mercy ministry (such as helping the poor and needy).
Although most people (including many Christians) are not accustomed to thinking deeply about the church, it is crucial for Christians to think biblically about the church. To this end, Scripture employs several helpful metaphors and images to describe the church. The church is a “family” (1 Tim. 5:1-2, Eph. 3:14), branches on a vine (John 15:5), an olive tree (Rom. 11:17-24), and a building (1 Cor. 3:9). Paul refers to the church as the “bride of Christ” (Eph. 5:32, 2 Cor. 11:2). The “body of Christ” is another familiar metaphor that Paul uses to express the close relationship between believers in the church and their relationship with Christ (Eph. 1:22-23, Col. 2:19). Paul, while addressing the Ephesian elders, cautioned, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). For Paul, the church is the most significant reality on earth because Jesus purchased it with His own blood. Accordingly, those tasked with its leadership must recognize the weighty responsibility entrusted to them.
In short, because the church is the blood-bought bride of God tasked with the responsibility of bearing witness to the saving news of the gospel, I believe churches should carefully scrutinize how much time is spent on topics outside the worship of God and the equipping of the saints through the word of God. Of course, this does not mean that churches or church leaders should withdraw from politics. Far from it. While “politics” carries with it a certain image, the word, properly understood, actually gets at how groups of humans organize their affairs. In this sense, politics is intimately connected to community—how we relate to other people—and is inextricable from the concept of loving one’s neighbor, which Christians are called to do. Further, politics implicates issues of moral importance to all Christians.
As I’ve explained in “Biblical Principles for Political Engagement,” voting is a matter of stewardship, and Christians should seek to vote in a way that honors God and advances the wellbeing of their neighbor. For pastors, there is additional responsibility. I believe churches ought to actively ensure that their members are educated on the issues. Pastors should preach expositionally through books of the Bible, ensuring they preach the whole counsel of God’s Word. Preaching through Scripture will have the effect of informing the conscience of congregations and help church members think faithfully about a host of public policy issues. Moreover, I think it is appropriate for churches to encourage good voting stewardship by conducting voter registration drives and distributing voter guides among their members.
Of course, wisdom and discernment are needed when it comes to how pastors think about politics and disciple their people. Conservative pastors should be aware of the potential for hypocrisy when liberals criticize them for engaging in politics while playing campaign-style videos in their own churches. Yet regardless of their individual judgments, pastors should be free to speak. The First Amendment protects speech, and the Johnson Amendment and IRS guidance have historically had a chilling and stifling effect on pastors’ speech.
At the end of the day, even though churches should have greater freedom and flexibility constitutionally, they should carefully and prayerfully consider how to steward their freedom well. Christians should engage politically, but that engagement must be done biblically, which is why churches (and particularly pastors) need to be wise and discerning, especially during election season.