With presidential candidates in a dead heat for Colorado, some churches are working to get out the vote, even if that means stepping close to, or over, a legal line.
For decades the pulpits have been mum on political matters. Through a provision to the federal tax code enacted by the Johnson Amendment of 1954, tax exempt organizations, including churches, are not allowed to participate or intervene in political campaigns. But this year, churches across the nation, including one in Colorado Springs, protested the provision by participating in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”
“You can’t be spiritual, and not touch on things political,” Senior Pastor Mark Cowart told the congregation at the Church For All Nations late Sunday morning during a special “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” sermon that pushed his congregation to vote for candidates who oppose abortion and gay marriage. The movement has grown from 33 churches to 1,500 since it began in 2008.
Recent polls show Democratic President Barack Obama, who supports abortion rights and gay marriage, in a statistical dead heat with Republican Mitt Romney, who has voiced opposition to both.
Cowart didn’t tell congregants which candidate to check on the ballot, but his choice was clear.
“When a Christian goes in and votes for someone who promotes things that God abhors, I can’t imagine how God sees that,” he told the congregation. “I encourage you to look at your faith and your politics and your vote and see if they correlate.”
The religious vote could play a massive role in El Paso County. At the church on Sunday, 50 people signed up at a voter registration table in the lobby.
While action is unlikely, if the IRS decides that Cowart’s sermon crossed from preaching into lobbying, the institution’s tax-free status could be at risk.
Despite any potential challenges that may come from the Internal Revenue Service, Cowart said that it was something he felt convicted to do.
“For years as a pastor I have felt muzzled — that I couldn’t speak on biblical issues,” he said.
“It’s not about endorsing a political candidate. It’s about addressing issues that are important to us as Christians,” he told the congregation. “We don’t have a political issue, we have a spiritual issue.”
More than helping believers navigate the issues, Cowart is getting people involved with the political process, conveying the message that as both Americans and Christians, voting is a responsibility they shouldn’t take lightly.
“I’ve never voted my entire life and I will vote this year,” said 33-year-old Brianne Elie, who’s worshipped with Church of All Nations for the past four years. “(Cowart) just flows with revelation information and he let’s you know where to go to find it. He shares his heart and gives me research.”
Cowart calls the separation of church and state “a total misunderstanding of what our founding fathers intended.”
“America is a Christian nation,” he told the congregation, at times quoting Alex Tocqueville and Woodrow Wilson. “By that I don’t mean everyone is a Christian. I don’t mean everyone has to be a Christian. It means that our foundations are inherently Christian.”