Set the Record Straight on Pastors and Politics

You Can Do More Than You Think

Cultural pressure continues to mount against pastors and churches—challenging the long history of Christianity in our nation. More now than ever, pastors and church leaders find themselves backed into the corner by political correctness. Can pastors push back and speak out on topics in the political world? Kelly Shackelford, President of Liberty Institute, says yes. In the following video, Kelly sets the record straight on a pastor's involvement in the political process.

Kelly is a constitutional scholar who has argued before the United States Supreme Court and testified before the U.S. House and Senate on constitutional issues. In the past few years, Kelly has also won three landmark First Amendment and religious liberty cases at the state level. 

Kelly identified four misconceptions about what a pastor can and can’t do with regard to politics and elections, and explained exactly what pastors can do:

  1. Pastors can talk about any political issue, such as abortion, immigration, or freedom of speech.
  2. Pastors can educate their people, encourage them to register and vote, and pass out non-partisan voter guides.
  3. Pastors can have candidates speak in their church, so long as they extend the invitation to all candidates running.
  4. Pastors can individually participate in the campaign of someone who's running for office.
No one has ever successfully prevented a pastor from doing any of the above four things.

Think through the current issues in our culture that the church can and should speak out about. Knowing that you have the legal freedom to do so, what could you present to your church on those issues? How?
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Pastors have the legal right to provide their congregants with non-partisan voters guides and materials discussing crucial political issues. Have you distributed these kinds of materials in the past? How would your church congregation benefit from having a solid voter guide?
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Not every pastor feels comfortable having a candidate speak to their congregation—but it's still a legal right so long as that pastor extends the invitation to every candidate running for the political office.  

What would be the benefit to your congregation of having a candidate or candidates speak at your church? Are there potential drawbacks? If so, what are they?
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The final misconception Kelly dealt with says pastors can't participate in a political campaign. But Kelly pointed out that, as an individual, pastors can be engaged with a campaign or even endorse a candidate. Does the freedom as a pastor to engage in a campaign encourage you? If so, why?
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Where the four misconceptions above dealt with what the pastor as an individual is free to do, the two points below limit what a church as an organization can do. Kelly pointed out that, for now, the IRS is the only organization enforcing these rules. They have not yet been tested against the First Amendment in court. But the threat of losing tax-exempt status is usually significant enough to encourage churches to abide by these two limitations:

  1. Pastors cannot use their church (as a 501c3 entity) to endorse a candidate.
  2. Pastors cannot use their church’s money or resources to support a candidate.

If, as a pastor, you chose to engage in the political realm in your individual capacity, what safeguards could you put in place to avoid tying your entire church as an organization to a political candidate?
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What kind of language could you employ that would help define the line between what you as an individual endorse in a political race and what your church's stance as an organization is?
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What is one key point that you came away with from Kelly's clarification of a pastor's ability to engage in the political realm? How will it change the way you lead your church this month? This year?
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 As a pastor, you have the unique responsibility of equipping the people of your church to take their Christianity into every sphere of their lives. That means engaging well in the political system of our country. This month and this year, prepare the people of your church to make wise and God-honoring decisions.

If you have specific questions about religious freedoms for you or your church, or simply want to find out more about the Liberty Institute, visit their website,, or call them at 972-941-4444.