In the weeks just before November’s general election, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association paid to place full-page ads in newspapers including the [Raleigh] News & Observer to The New York Times. These ads quoted Billy Graham calling on voters to “cast [their] ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel, I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman.”
People of faith can and do disagree about which “biblical principles” should guide their decision-making. A group of North Carolina clergy, in response to the Graham ad, called on people of faith to remember the biblical principles of “responsibility to the poor, vulnerable, and those on the margins,” principles which the NC Council of Churches has been holding before people of faith for more than 75 years.
People of faith can and do disagree about a range of life issues, about what the Bible does and does not say about same-gender relationships, and about whether or not to support Israel. Within the North Carolina Council of Churches, those widely differing positions are represented by denominations and individuals who all feel that they are heeding the words of the Bible.
Others have questioned whether the ad was the work of Billy Graham or of his son Franklin, who has taken over operation of the BGEA. Billy Graham has tended to shy away from endorsing candidates, especially after his close relationship with Richard Nixon, who turned out to be, among other things, something of a potty mouth.
I want to raise a different issue about the Graham ads.
I’ve worked for faith communities in North Carolina for almost 35 years. Every other year, as elections roll around, I’ve fielded questions from pastors and other people of faith about what they can do to support or oppose candidates.
The answer for churches and other organizations with a 501(c)(3) tax status (what many nonprofits and almost all churches have) is strikingly clear. 501(c)(3)s are prohibited from “electioneering” – supporting or opposing candidates for elective office. There’s no wiggle room, no gray area. Zero, zip, nada. No electioneering by (c)(3)s. Nobody forces churches to accept a (c)(3) status, but if you take it – with its tax deducibility for contributors – then the prohibition on electioneering comes along with the tax benefit.
This year’s Amendment One referendum brought increased attention to the electoral activities of churches, with people on both sides of the amendment saying that those on the other side were inappropriately involved in the campaign. Ironically, a referendum is treated differently by the IRS from an election pitting candidates, so the activities of churches on both sides of the amendment debate were not violations of the ban on electioneering. Still, people were more on alert, more aware of IRS limits. I cautioned churches and faith leaders involved with the NC Council of Churches to be especially vigilant about electioneering this year.
In an election where candidates for President, for Governor, and for many legislative races were on opposite sides of the issues of same-gender marriage and abortion, could anybody possibly read the Graham ad as anything other than supporting some candidates and opposing others? I don’t see how. It’s there in his own words: “vote for candidates” who take certain positions. You don’t have to name names to be telling people who they should vote for.
Will the Internal Revenue Service see fit to enforce its own regulations about electioneering? I’m pretty sure they will be asked to do so. Have those of us who have followed the rules about electioneering been chumps? Maybe so. It remains to be seen. The IRS needs to let us know before the next elections roll around.
–George Reed, Executive Director