Religious leaders’ political endorsements

As the 2012 presidential primaries headed into overdrive, endorsements by religious leaders added interesting twists to an already fascinating election season – and in some cases drew the attention of watchdog groups. Although 70 percent of registered voters say it’s inappropriate for clergy to speak publicly on behalf of or against a specific candidate, politicians continue to court such support and have frequently gotten it.


The 2012 elections brought strong political endorsements from religious leaders across the country. A few days before the election Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay, Wisc. decided to disobey the IRS’ ban on churches endorsement of political candidates and told his congregation that voting for a democrat “could send you to hell.” Pastor Rick Warren of the evangelical Saddleback Church took a less forceful side in the election, but took a position nonetheless; a few weeks before the election Warren told Christians in his community not to apologize for the candidate they vote for but just to remain Christian in their values, while also announcing that Mitt Romney’s own Christianity was in question.

In 2008, Democrat Hillary Clinton won the backing of an influential Harlem pastor. Republican Mike Huckabee successfully tapped into a variety of lesser-known evangelical networks and gained from their organizational help and influence. And two clergy endorsements of Democrat Barack Obama made news: one by the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, the Houston megachurch pastor who’s considered one of President George W. Bush’s spiritual advisers (Caldwell emphasized that his political support was not as a pastor, but as an individual), and one by a Pentecostal minister during a church service in Nevada. The latter prompted Americans United for Separation of Church and State to seek an Internal Revenue Service investigation.

That watchdog group and others like it contend that some worship services seem more like campaign rallies when candidates take over the pulpit, and the groups question whether churches and other tax-exempt groups are flouting the federal law that limits their political activities.

At the same time, some faith groups and their supporters fought back. A Wisconsin church and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty placed an ad in The Wall Street Journal in January 2008 accusing the IRS of misusing the tax rules to muzzle charitable groups. Other organizations work to make sure clergy members understand their free-speech rights, and in some instances offer legal advice and assistance to test IRS limits.

In Washington, U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., again introduced a bill that would scrap the 1954 amendment to the tax code that restricts churches’ political involvement. His proposal was referred to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Meanwhile, the IRS responded to allegations of improper politicization of tax-exempt groups – allegations that jumped markedly (from 166 referrals in 2004 to 237 in 2006) during the previous federal election cycle.

Why it matters

Religion has always played a unique role in American politics. The United States has a long history of religious leaders acting as the conscience and moral compass of the nation. With both parties seeing pitched battles for presidential nominations, more religious leaders and religious groups may be tempted to or will let their views on various issues of the day be known. That will likely intensify IRS scrutiny.

Questions for reporters

  • How have religious organizations and leaders in your community responded to IRS scrutiny?
  • Where do they stand on federal legislation that would allow religious groups and leaders to engage in political activity without risking their tax-exempt status?
  • Have there been any complaints about religious groups or leaders endorsing political candidates in your community?
  • How do members of congregations feel about such political involvement?
  • Where do local political leaders stand on the issue?


  • In October 2012 16,000 pastors in the U.S. violated the 58-year-old ban on political endorsements by churches in backing political candidates during their Sunday sermons. Read about the law and IRS’ responses.
  • A Nevada pastor’s backing of Barack Obama during a January 2008 church service prompted Americans United for Separation of Church and State to request an Internal Revenue Service investigation.
  • January of 2008 brought other key endorsements for Obama, including one by Kirbyjon Caldwell, pastor of a Houston megachurch and longtime spiritual adviser to President George W. Bush. Caldwell emphasized that he was speaking not as a pastor, but as an individual. Obama also was invited to the pulpit at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s home church, Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist, an invitation that National Public Radio called “a de facto endorsement.
  • A Jan. 16, 2008, ad in The Wall Street Journal accused the IRS of misusing federal law to keep clergy from preaching about politicians and political issues. A Wisconsin church and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty placed the ad, which Americans United for Separation of Church and State described as misleading.

IRS rules

Tax exemptions

  • “Tax exemptions”

    Read the First Amendment Center’s backgrounder on tax exemptions for religious groups, including FAQ and relevant court cases.

  • “Legal Dos and Don’ts”

    Read “Legal Dos and Don’ts” for churches and pastors, posted by, a website of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

  • “Project Fair Play: FAQ”

    Americans United for Separation of Church and State has this FAQ on electioneering by houses of worship.

  • Religious Tax Exemptions: Overview offers an articles on religious tax exemption.

  • “Politics and the Pulpit 2008”

    See a resource from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life on political endorsements by religious groups.

  • “Tax Exemption for Churches”

    The American Center for Law & Justice offers a resource page on churches’ tax-exempt status. ACLJ has frequently argued in court for the right of churches to engage in politics.


Polls and surveys

National sources


  • Steven Miller

    Steven Miller is acting commissioner  of internal revenue for the IRS in Washington, D.C. Contact media relations.

    Contact: 202-622-4000.
  • U.S. Rep. Walter Jones Jr.

    U.S. Rep. Walter Jones Jr., R-N.C., sponsored the failed “Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act of 2005” which would have amended the IRS code to state that churches and other houses of worship will not lose their tax-exempt status because of the “content, preparation or presentation of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings.”

    Contact: 202-225-3415.


  • Alliance Defense Fund

    The Alliance Defense Fund opposes same-sex marriage and efforts to circumvent DOMA.

    It is one of five groups working jointly to fight what they call efforts to muzzle ministers in election season.

    Contact: 480-444-0020.


  • C. Welton Gaddy

    The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy is president of the Interfaith Alliance and author of numerous books, including First Freedom First: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State. Gaddy serves as pastor for preaching and worship at Northminster Baptist Church in Monroe, La. The alliance is based in Washington, D.C.

    Contact: 202-238-3300, 202) 466-0567.


  • James Dobson

    James Dobson is founder and former president and chairman of the board of Focus on the Family. In 2010, he founded a new ministry called Family Talk.

  • Richard Land

    Richard Land is president of the nondenominational Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., and previously served for 25 years as president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

  • Robert W. Edgar

    The Rev. Bob Edgar is general secretary of the National Council of Churches which works for ecumenical cooperation among Christians in the United States. Contact through director of media relations Daniel Webster.

  • Leith Anderson

    The Rev. Leith Anderson is president of the National Association of Evangelicals and the former senior pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minn.

    Contact: 202-479-0815.
  • Raymond Flynn

    Raymond Flynn is chairman of the Catholic Alliance, a former mayor of Boston and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. His group supported the “Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act of 2005.”

  • Russell Moore

    Russell Moore is editor-in-chief of Christianity Today. Named in 2017 as one of Politico Magazine’s top fifty influence-makers in Washington, Moore was previously President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.


  • Daniel Lapin

    Rabbi Daniel Lapin is a prominent Washington-based rabbi who supported the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act of 2005.

  • Nathan J. Diament

    Nathan J. Diament is director of the Institute for Public Affairs, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, in New York.


  • Bill Aiken

    Bill Aiken is director of public affairs for Soka Gakkai International-USA, an American Buddhist association based in Santa Monica, Calif., that opposed the “Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act of 2005.”

    Contact: 202-338-1750.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Ira C. Lupu

    Ira “Chip” Lupu is F. Elwood and Eleanor Davis Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School and a church-state expert who writes frequently about the faith-based initiative. In a January 2009 Q-and-A with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Lupu said that the trend has been toward greater church-state partnerships.

  • Marci A. Hamilton

    Marci A. Hamilton is the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program Professor of Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the founder, CEO and academic director for Child USA, a nonprofit think tank aimed at ending child abuse. Hamilton, who began her career as a lawyer, is an expert on child sex abuse statutes, as well as law and religion. She is author of God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty.

  • Rikki Abzug

    Rikki Abzug is a professor of management at Anisfield School of Business at Ramapo College in New Jersey.

  • Ram A. Cnaan

    Ram A. Cnaan is a leading expert on faith-based social services and the chair of the doctoral program in social welfare at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He wrote the article “Defining Who Is a Volunteer: Conceptual and Empirical Considerations” for the journal Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly (1996). He is also director of the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research and co-author of The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare.

  • J. Bryan Hehir

    J. Bryan Hehir is the Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is an expert on religion and American society.

  • Richard Pomp

    Richard Pomp is a law professor at the University of Connecticut and a tax expert.

In the South

  • Natalie Davis

    Natalie Davis is a political science professor at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama. She is an expert on religion and taxes.

  • Robert Wineburg

    Robert Wineburg is the Jefferson Pilot Excellence Professor of social work at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro who has looked at IRS investigations of churches for political activities related to elections. He is the author of the Faith-Based Inefficiency: The Follies of Bush’s Initiatives, and he has been writing comprehensively about faith-based politics and social services since the Reagan era.

  • Melissa Rogers

    Melissa Rogers is a nonresident senior fellow in governance studies for Brookings, where she specializes in the First Amendment’s religion clauses and religion and faith-related political issues. She previously served as special assistant to President Barack Obama and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

  • David A. Brennen

    David A. Brennen is the dean of University of Kentucky College of Law. He co-wrote the book The Tax Law of Charities and Other Exempt Organizations: Cases, Materials, Questions and Activities (West Group Publishing, 2003).

  • Neal Devins

    Neal Devins is a professor of law at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. He is an expert on abortion law.

  • Frances Hill

    Frances Hill is a University of Miami law professor and an expert on the political rights of tax-exempt organizations. She has said tax-exempt organizations can be passionate about politics without losing their tax-exempt status.

In the Midwest

  • Donald Tobin

    Donald Tobin is associate dean for faculty at Ohio State University’s Michael E. Moritz College of Law. He is an expert on religious organizations and the federal tax exemption.

  • John D. Colombo

    John D. Colombo is a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law in Champaign, Ill. He has proposed a theoretical and practical system for determining when nonprofit entities should receive tax exemptions.

  • Gina Torielli

    Gina Torielli is director of the graduate tax program at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich. She is an expert on tax-exempt organizations.

  • Douglas Laycock

    Douglas Laycock is a professor of law and religious studies at the University of Virginia and an authority on religious liberty. He is the author of several books and articles on law and religion and co-edited a collection of essays on same-sex marriage and religious freedom.

  • Vaughn E. James

    Vaughn E. James is a law professor at Texas Tech University. He wrote the article “Reaping Where They Have Not Sowed: Have American Churches Failed to Satisfy the Requirements for the Religious Tax Exemptions?” for the Catholic Law Review (2004).

  • Peter Frumkin

    Peter Frumkin is professor of social policy, faculty director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, and director of the nonprofit leadership program at University of Pennsylvania.He is the author of On Being Nonprofit: A Conceptual and Policy Primer (Harvard University Press, 2005).

In the West

  • Ted G. Jelen

    Ted G. Jelen is a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has followed religion and politics, including the participation of the Catholic Church and the role abortion politics plays. He co-edited the books Abortion Politics in the United States: Studies in Public Opinion and The One, the Few and the Many: Religion and Politics in Comparative Perspective. He also co-wrote the book Between Two Absolutes: Public Opinion and the Politics of Abortion.

  • Stephen Bainbridge

    Stephen Bainbridge is a professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles. He has written about the Roman Catholic bishop in Colorado Springs who sent out a church letter saying Catholics should not receive communion if they voted for politicians who supported abortion rights.

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