Squealing About an Endorsement

By Anthony | April 26th, 2007 | 12:53 am

Local blogger Joe Guarino recently wrote about City Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson’s announcement of her mayoral candidacy. At the end of his post, Joe had this to say:

The News and Record also reported that Rev. Howard Chubbs offered his endorsement and spoke on her behalf. He is the pastor of Providence Baptist Church, reported to be “one of the most prominent black churches in town”. Once again, our local separationists failed to squeal in outrage that the esteemed wall between church and state had been breached. If a local conservative Christian or Catholic pastor had done something like this, we never would have heard the end of it.

I’m not sure if I qualify as a “local separationist”, but since I’ve written on such topics before, let’s take a look and see if there’s anything to this that’s worthy of squeals of outrage.

The main issue at hand is whether Chubbs’ endorsement breaches the wall of separation between church and state. The main protection that this “wall” provides applies to governmental authorities – acting in an official capacity, government agents may not act to endorse or favor one religion over another. Chubbs is not an agent of the government. In fact, at first glance, this would appear to be the exact opposite situation – a church looking to endorse or influence the government.

That brings up another potential conflict. While it’s obvious that there is no problem here in the sense of the government meddling in religion, there are indeed certain circumstances where churches and other non-profit organizations are prevented from doing exactly what Chubbs did – speaking on behalf of a certain candidate, and attempting to influence voters to vote in a certain partisan direction. IRS regulations state:

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.

However, this is intended to apply to the church as an organization. It applies directly to pastors or church officials only when they are speaking from the pulpit, or in an official capacity on behalf of the church. From the IRS website:

The political campaign activity prohibition is not intended to restrict free expression on political matters by leaders of organizations speaking for themselves, as individuals. Nor are leaders prohibited from speaking about important issues of public policy. However, for their organizations to remain tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3), leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions.

So if Chubbs was speaking from the pulpit, or as a church leader at an official church function, we’d have a problem here. The context of Chubbs’ endorsement is given in the News and Record article that Guarino links to:

On Thursday , there were a few signs — more than a few signs, actually — that City Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson’s mayoral candidacy won’t be your typical starched, buttoned-up affair.

… [S]peakers offered a preview of Johnson’s powerful political support: former council members Claudette Burroughs-White and Robbie Perkins ; attorney and civic leader Henry Isaacson ; arts activist Betty Cone ; and the Rev. Howard Chubbs , the pastor of one of the most prominent black churches in town, Providence Baptist Church .

Chubbs, who isn’t Johnson’s pastor, said she told him weeks ago she was considering a run for mayor.

He asked: “Who better than you and what better time than now?”

In other words, Chubbs’ endorsement was given at Johnson’s press conference to announce her candidacy, at the Phill G. McDonald Governmental Plaza in Greensboro. All indications are that he was speaking in an individual capacity, hence there is no conflict here, and nothing worthy of any squeals.

Had Chubbs been speaking from the pulpit, then I would absolutely agree that there was a conflict. But the First Amendment also guarantees free speech, and as an individual Chubbs is fully entitled to that right. I would say the same thing of any conservative church leader endorsing a politician in an individual capacity.

12 Responses to “Squealing About an Endorsement”

  1. Joe Guarino Says:

    Anthony, I agree with much of your rationale. And I don’t regard you as a “local separationist”.

    My initial post was referring to a tendency among those in the separationist camp to take their representations of what the constitution says to an extreme. We have all seen potshots taken at attempts by conservative Christian and Catholic laymen and clergy when they try to influence policy, and politicians acquiescing. These potshots have been taken with the presumption that some type of breach has taken place. I agree with you that clergy should have the right of free speech, and that what Chubbs did should not be regarded as problematic. However, this should also apply to the religious communities I previously mentioned.

    However, I am not sure Chubbs is off the hook with respect to the IRS issue, with which I am quite familiar. How can we separate his political endorsement from the power he has as a preacher at a tax-exempt institution, even if he is not making it from his own pulpit? He was speaking at an “official function”– a declaration of political candidacy; and his congregants undoubtedly receive that signal he sent through the media or through other channels.

    Again, my question is– what would be the reaction among the separationist crowd if conservative Christian or Catholic pastors did this so brazenly?

  2. PotatoStew Says:

    Thanks for the response Joe.

    Regarding Chubbs’ actions and the IRS issue, I understood “official function” to mean “official church or organization function”, though I could be wrong of course.

    As for your question: “what would be the reaction among the separationist crowd if conservative Christian or Catholic pastors did this so brazenly?”

    If you’re serious about that question, I think you need to specify exactly who you are referring to.

    Having taken a separationist stance on some issues in the past, I answered for myself, but you say I don’t fall into the group in question. Who then are the “local separationists” that you’re speaking of? Without knowing that, it’s impossible for anyone to answer your question – for the moment we’re only talking about a vague, ill-defined group that may or may not include any actual people.

  3. Joe Guarino Says:

    Anthony, I really don’t want to personalize this beyond a general discussion on the issue. I really try to avoid doing that, but I think the principle under discussion is important.

    We need to remember that Chubbs’ standing in the community is by virtue of his leadership of that church, and in the political arena, by virtue of his influence over his congregation. He would not have been asked to issue a public endorsement at the announcement of Johnson’s candidacy if he were a welder or a day laborer.

    It would be an interesting test case if someone were to file a complaint with the IRS, and we would see what the outcome is. But I know that if conservative Christian churches were to consider doing this type of thing, they worry about losing their tax exemption– and all the tithes and offerings to the church are no longer deductible. That is a big deal.

    In fact, you are likely aware of the Christian Coalition. At one point in the past, it (and perhaps the churches that used its materials) got into trouble because its voter guides were distributed in churches. My understanding is that the guides merely rated candidates on certain issues, or recorded their positions or votes. But that was enough to create problems with the IRS, and there was no explicit endorsement!– if I remember correctly.

    But generally, Anthony, the stuff you write is not filled with vitriol or repeated subtle shots taken against faithful Catholics and conservative Christians for the political views they may hold– with implicit or explicit concerns raised over separationism.

  4. Laura Says:

    “Again, my question is– what would be the reaction among the separationist crowd if conservative Christian or Catholic pastors did this so brazenly?”

    What does Mr. Guarano mean, “if?” They do, in fact, do this, and more.

    But worse, they do so much more brazenly and illegally, including telling their congregations from the pulpit who to vote for, and distributing voter guides at church that endorse specific candidates. It is practices such as these that we who defend separation of church and state take issue with — not Jerry Falwell appearing on Fox News every night, however much we might disagree with him.

    Remember, this nation was founded on religious freedom and separation of church and state — NOT on Christianity, and not on the Bible, despite how loudly and repeatedly conservatives try to mislead us into thinking so — both from the pulpit and on the airwaves. Religious freedom and separation of church and state are central to our system and have served us well for more than 250 years.

    Those of us who defend these core American values and principals emphatically do not object to priests and preachers exercising their rights as citizens to speak up about politics or candidates — as long as they do so within the law.

    Mr. Guarano is mischaracterizing us just so that he can knock us. Conservatives have done enough damage to our freedoms and our civil liberties. It is time for liberty-loving Americans to start standing up to them and invalidating their anti-American authoritarian agenda.

  5. joe Says:

    All I’ll say is Laura is going to Hell….I hope she changes before this happens!

  6. joe Says:

    By the way, this is not Joe Guarino, as I’m sure he would probably never say what I said about Laura….but I speak the truth, so I stand by it!

  7. PotatoStew Says:

    Joe, I appreciate that you don’t want to personalize the discussion. At the same time, the phrasing of your original post was overly broad, implying that local separationists in general were hypocritical for not speaking out against Chubbs.

    In my opinion, it amounted to a “potshot” against the general idea of separationism. There may indeed be some validity to your criticism, but I would venture a guess that its appropriate target is a pretty small (though possibly vocal) subset of separationists.

    I do agree that this would make an interesting test case – I think Chubbs is probably in the clear, but you do raise some good points, and there definitely seem to be many shades of gray in this area.

    Laura,

    Thanks for your comments. There definitely have been plenty of cases where clergy on the conservative side have crossed the line (gray as the line may be). Regarding your last paragraph – I do agree that Joe’s post was an attempt to “knock” separationism, but I don’t think he was trying to knock anyone personally. I also don’t think he’s “anti-American”.

    Other joe,

    I’m sure God will look kindly on the way you’ve pompously elevated yourself to his level and presumed to know who’s going to hell based on comments that didn’t remotely address any actual religious tenets.

  8. meblogin Says:

    This is a great post…well written.

    If a minister endorses and encourages his following to do so….the law has been broken.

    If a minister simply says I endorse…then he speaks as an individual.

    Question— If a minister stands in the pulpit of his church and says… “I am not advocating, advising or requesting that you support my choice of candidate but I CHOOSE or believe “so and so” to be the best choice”
    Has any law been broken?

    Great Post.

  9. Brenda Bowers Says:

    Thank you for bringing this issue up for discussion Anthony. Unfortunately for Greensboro/Guilford some churches are very much involved with politics. Specifically we have The Black Pulpit Forum which actively engages in all sorts of public and behind closed doors political activities. The members are ministers and they bring the church into their activities with their name “pulpit”. Why they are able to get away with this? Because no one has brought charges against them, and until charges are brought then the IRS will avoid the situation. As far as the IRS is concerned these people are small fry. They do however do a great deal of damage to Greensboro/Guilford in that they interfere where they have no business and they actively endorse candidates for office. Worse, they lead their followers which is a great many in the Black community to vote for those known to have committed shall we say, shady deals. In fact, some members of the Pulpit Forum were very much involved as individuals and as members of the Pulpit Forum in Project Homestead and Saint James Apartments scandals.

  10. PotatoStew Says:

    Meb – thanks for the kind words.

    Brenda – thanks for your comment. I’m not exactly sure how the Pulpit forum is organized, or how it operates, so I don’t know precisely where in the gray area it lies. Again, even ministers are entitled to express their opinions on political matters, but if they are indeed doing it while in their official ministerial capacity, then its wrong. Being such a prominent group, the line gets blurred a little further, much as it is when (to use Laura’s example) Falwell and other prominent Christian leaders speak on the news.

    There are people who want to just do away with the prohibition on partisan political speech from the pulpit, but my get reaction is that the prohibition is generally a good thing, even though it can create ambiguous situations. Of course another solution would be just to get rid of tax-exempt statuses for churches, but I expect there would be a lot of people against that.

  11. Joe Killian Says:

    “The Black Pulpit Forum?”

  12. Brenda Bowers Says:

    Yes Joe the Black Pulpit Forum because it is made up of Black ministers. And anthony, the organization’s stated purpose is to organize Black ministers, so when they come as a group and using not their surnames but the groups name then they are speaking as a religious organization and not individuals.