Perhaps. It depends on who you are and exactly what you’re saying…
Take Pastor James David Manning of Atlah World Ministries, for example. The IRS won’t advise whether is being investigated or not. But it is clear that Pastor Manning is generating some publicity for his statements earlier in the year, in which he repeatedly calls Senator Barack Obama a “Mack Daddy” and says that he has pimped white women and black women (yes, he made a distinction as between the two) in an effort to get his campaign started. In that sermon, he further refers to Obama as trash, Obama’s father as “African in heat father” and Obama’s mother as “a trashy white woman” before later referring to Obama as an “emissary of the devil” – yes, this all from a man who professes to be a man of God.
Later in the sermon, which Manning posted on Youtube (you can watch it below), he touts President Clinton for pumping money into Manning’s Harlem community – and admonishes the community for not taking care of the quarter billion dollar contribution. Manning is otherwise opposed to gentrification of Harlem; the ATLAH stands for All the Land Anointed Holy, his name for Harlem.
Manning doesn’t stop there. In another sermon, Manning further goes on to emphasize that Obama is “not black” but “white trash.”
A watchdog group, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, noted the video and filed a formal complaint with the IRS. The IRS has not confirmed whether Manning or Atlah are currently under investigation – but I’m betting that they are.
But wait, it’s okay to bad mouth Obama, right? Or McCain? Or Palin? Or Biden?
Sure it is, if it comes from you or me as private citizens. But tax-exempt organizations – including churches, schools and purely public charities – may not endorse candidates, raise funds for candidates or distribute statements for or against candidates.
In other words, whether you’re Pastor Manning speaking from the pulpit, Joe Paterno, Coach of Penn State University’s football team on the field or Gail J. McGovern, President and CEO of the American Red Cross speaking from the front lines of natural disasters, your speeches, articles and appearances will be subject to scrutiny (to be clear, the last two folks are merely examples of high profile leaders of tax exempt organizations and are not examples of folks who have said anything inappropriate with respect to the elections). Tax exempt organizations are aware of the rules that govern them – and most have guidelines in place to remind employees and representatives of the dangers of ignoring the rules against politicking. The ramifications, if such rules are broken, can be severe, including loss of tax-exempt status.
This isn’t the first controversy surrounding politics and churches to hit this election season. Earlier, Obama’s church was investigated by the IRS (and later cleared) after Obama was asked to speak at the church during the presidential primaries. First Baptist Church of Buena Park Pastor Wiley Drake was likewise investigated after he formally endorsed Mike Huckabee for President on church letterhead (and later prayed that those who objected to his endorsement would die). And who could forget Bill Keller of liveprayer.com who advised his followers that a vote for Mitt Romney was a vote for Satan because, as he wrote, “ROMNEY GETTING ELECTED PRESIDENT WILL ULTIMATELY LEAD MILLIONS OF SOULS TO THE ETERNAL FLAMES OF HELL!!!”
Attempts to bring religion into politics have heightened, not decreased, despite the IRS’ efforts during this presidential campaign to remind tax exempt organizations of their responsibilities to follow the rules. With increased visibility via the internet, my guess is that such organizations will become even bolder in their approach.