October 8th, 2012
02:20 PM ET

Pastor heralds success of endorsing from the pulpit, challenging IRS

By Dan Merica, CNN

In a sermon that likely broke the law, Indiana pastor Ron Johnson told his 400 congregants Sunday that for those who believe in the Bible, the decision to vote against President Barack Obama “is a no-brainer.”

“For Christian people who believe the Bible is the inspired world of God, it is not rocket science,” Johnson told CNN after his sermon.

Johnson’s anti-Obama sermonizing likely violated the so-called Johnson Amendment, an Internal Revenue Service rule that forbids churches that receive tax-exempt status from the federal government to intervene in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

But Johnson appears comfortable with defying the IRS. His sermon was part of a national campaign by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal organization that has organized Pulpit Freedom Sunday since 2008, encouraging pastors to flout the Johnson Amendment with political endorsements from the pulpit.

Alliance Defending Freedom said that more 1,500 other pastors across the United States participated Sunday. The goal: to force the IRS to come down on these churches so the organization, whose network includes 2,200 attorneys, can test the Johnson Amendment’s constitutionality.

“The IRS has the ability and the authority to regulate their sermons. We are giving them the opportunity to do that, and if they challenge that, we will challenge that in court,” said Erik Stanley, Alliance Defending Freedom's senior legal counsel. “It is all about creating a test case to find the Johnson Amendment as unconstitutional.”

With less than a month until the presidential election, what was said at this year’s Pulpit Freedom Sunday could hold more sway than in previous years.

Critics say the movement is a Republican front dressed up as an exercise in religious freedom, an allegation the event organizer rejects.

“The ADF wants to elect the next president. They want to elect Mitt Romney,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “This is not about some principle.”

Johnson denies that, noting on Sunday he did not endorse Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, but instead urged his congregation to vote against Obama, whose policies he called “un-American.”

He said the speech received a number of standing ovations.

When CNN asked to be put in touch with a church that plans to endorse the president, representatives from the organization said they don’t screen whom the churches plan to endorse.

The Alliance Defending Freedom has ties to other conservative Christian groups such as the American Family Association and Focus on the Family.

“I think there is a possibility that in some of these mega-churches, a pastor's saying it is OK to vote for Mitt Romney … could increase voter turnout,” Lynn said.

So far, the effort has received little to no response from the IRS.

The IRS did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Many of the sermons from Sunday will be sent to the nation’s tax collection agency, a move that organizers hope will make it easy for the IRS to come down on the churches. According to Stanley, the majority of the messages in past years have gone unnoticed, and only a handful of pastors receive letters, some of which threaten to revoke the churches' tax-exempt status.

This nonenforcement by the IRS has emboldened some pastors and the Alliance Defending Freedom, said Lynn of Americans United. According to pastors who have participated in the past, the fact the IRS rarely if ever comes down on these churches encourages them to keep endorsing.

Stanley and the Alliance Defending Freedom theorize that the IRS doesn’t want to be challenged in court and that the agency may be disorganized.

But the lack of enforcement stems from bureaucratic uncertainty about what rank an IRS official must be to initiate an investigation, Lynn said.

In the past, the IRS has investigated churches that it suspected of violating the Johnson Amendment.

Four days before the 1992 presidential election, the Landmark Church in Binghamton, New York, ran a full-page ad in USA Today that said, "Christians Beware," followed by a list of Bill Clinton's positions on homosexuality, abortion and the distribution of condoms. At the bottom, the church asked for donations to help pay for the ad.

According to Lynn, Americans United filed a complaint, and the church lost its tax-exempt status in 1995.

Landmark Church pastor Dan Little took the IRS to court, arguing the agency was violating the church's First Amendment rights and the agency was only able to revoke the tax-exempt status of a "religious organization," not an actual church.

Both a U.S. District Court judge and a federal appeals court rejected those arguments.

Johnson, the Indiana pastor, laughs when asked about those who question whether a pastor should be allowed to endorse from the pulpit.

“Pastors understand the so-called separation of church and state, as it is currently understood. We understand how marginalized we are becoming,” Johnson said. “We are supposed to be part of the community discussion about issues that matter.”

- Dan Merica

Filed under: 2012 Election • Barack Obama • Christianity • Mitt Romney • Politics

soundoff (581 Responses)
  1. Sam235

    George Washington
    1st U.S. President

    "While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished character of Patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian."
    –The Writings of Washington, pp. 342-343.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
    • mama kindless

      I don't necessarily doubt this, but for anyone to believe you, you need to give a full reference. Is it a book? Who is the author? When did Washington say this – when he was 15 years old? You know, see my example below regarding James Madison as an example.

      October 8, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
    • Sam235

      mama kindless, Washington was extraordinarily religious. Most of the founding fathers were but did not want to sound that way because people were afraid of religion and government mixing together because of the memory of the Church of England.

      October 8, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
    • John Gault

      "Lighthouses are more useful than churches"...Ben Franklin

      October 8, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
    • mama kindless

      No, for Washington, I agree about his being religious. But I just wanted to know the sources. IMHO, fortunately for us today, it was the influence of the more Deist founders that we wound up with the Const!tution that we have. There a number of people out there trying to rewrite history – I'm sure you've heard of the trouble Mr. David Barton is in. So you need to proved and be careful with your sources. Just check out the conversation that occurred earlier today for the article "My Take: The five biggest misconceptions about secularism".

      October 8, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      And it's misquoting the founders' night, here on the belief blog!

      October 8, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      you do realize that Mr. Washington was a member of the Church of England don't you?

      He even served as a Vestryman and as Church Warden for both Fairfax Parish in Alexandria and Truro Parish.

      As a social climbing colonial Virginian, participation in the Church of England was essential. It was after all, the established church of Virginia.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:14 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @John Gault

      I hope you are using the 'lighthouses' reference ironically.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
  2. Sam235

    "I am a real Christian – that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ." - Thomas Jefferson.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
    • Russell's Teapot

      "The whole history of these books (i.e. the Gospels) is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills." Thomas Jefferson

      October 8, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
    • John Gault

      Sam, have you read Thomas Payne's Age of Reason? Now there's a guy who was ahead of his time.......

      October 8, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
    • mama kindless

      You to have a much better reference than none – like at least a dodu ment source and when Jefferson said this at a minimum for it to have any value. I'm not necessarily denying it as many of these men during this time were Christians that has a very high leaning towards Deism which was very popular then. And as such, they often leaned the most toward their Deist side when it came to law, treaties, and the Const!tution! They were having problems in their own states with Anglicans feuding with other forms of Christianity, so by inwardly adopting Deism they were better able to be peacemakers.

      October 8, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
    • mama kindless

      typo correction: doc ument, not dod ument

      October 8, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
    • Sam235

      Russell's Teapot, You can find contradictory quotes on Jefferson, but the pattern is very clear. Jefferson believed in God when he was young and drifted a way in his old age. That does not negate his religious influence on his political wrings early on. Do you understand this concept?

      October 8, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
    • Russell's Teapot

      Sam is evidently confounded by the ineluctable fact that this country was not founded upon christian notions in any sense of the term. Furthermore, he demonstrates intellectual dishonesty by denying a significant portion of the founding fathers were deists. Regardless, I refer Sam to reference the Treaty of Tripoli, specifically Article 11.

      October 8, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      Jefferson clearly liked Jesus, but he wasn't keen on miracles – so he made is own version of the Gospels (minus the miracles). I guess it depends on your definition of "Christian".

      He also said this:

      "And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerve in the brain of Jupiter. But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors". – Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823

      He also said this about Christian preachers:

      "Those who live by mystery & charlatanerie, fearing you would render them useless by simplifying the Christian philosophy,– the most sublime & benevolent, but most perverted system that ever shone on man,– endeavored to crush your well-earnt & well-deserved fame." – Thomas Jefferson, letter to Joseph Priestley, Mar 21, 1801

      I like this one:

      "Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law." – Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814

      October 8, 2012 at 11:05 pm |
  3. John

    Over 2,000 Americans have given their lives in Afghanistan trying to free the world of the tyranny of religious zealots. Meanwhile in America our own version of the Taliban is trying to take over the country and force their beliefs on us all.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • peridot2

      This church must have its tax-exempt status revoked immediately.

      October 8, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
    • Sam235

      peridot2, By what authority? Congress and the president have not been given the authority to tax churches. It is illegal to tax the church no matter what the church says about the government.

      October 8, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
    • Russell's Teapot

      I am beginning to suspect that you don't much bother with the text of any given article to which other commentators post their thoughts. You ask by what right can the government nullify a church's tax exempt status? How about the Johnson Amendment? If you had even bothered to read the entirety of a relatively short article, you would have undoubtedly noticed that this Amendment has been upheld in a court of law. Now you know. And knowing is half the battle

      October 8, 2012 at 11:04 pm |
  4. geeworker

    he received a standing ovation ? I'm sure he did just like the grand wizard receives a stand ovation at a KKK rally

    October 8, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
  5. mama kindless

    James Madison, 4th President of the U.S. and chief architect of the U.S. Const!tution:

    During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superst!tion, bigotry, and persecution.

    –A Memorial and Remonstrance, addressed to the Virginia General Assembly, 1785

    October 8, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
    • ogre12

      The message of Christ remains true today as certainly as it was true with those who physically witnessed His deeds. You can poopoo off His deeds and the scriptures before and during His Life and Sacrifice but I tell you truly He is Christ and if you want any hope here in this life and more importantly after this life you must have Him as your salvation. Anything else is pure crap and is satan.

      October 8, 2012 at 11:00 pm |
  6. chizzlinsam

    Einstein said religion is for the weak-minded...these pastors/churches that did this need to be SHUT until after the election–then the laws can be changed and all brainwashing organizations ( religions) will lose their tax exemp status...

    October 8, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
  7. hnbc

    “The ADF wants to elect the next president. They want to elect Mitt Romney,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “This is not about some principle.”

    Johnson denies that, noting on Sunday he did not endorse Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, but instead urged his congregation to vote against Obama, whose policies he called “un-American.”

    Guess I'm missing something here. Vote against Obama but it's not really a vote for Romeny. Quite a scary bit of logic there. Of course, it's a strange logic many Christians have ...

    October 8, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
  8. bibleverse1

    I do not advocate breaking the law. The churches should be advocating that members vote and pray for wisdom to choose a candidate and respect the winner.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
    • 24 Hour Crisis Center

      Why should they pray? I don't get it. Praying makes no sense. Let me break out the Ouija board...what is the point again?

      October 8, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
    • geeworker

      and if ALL churches stopped their we would not be having this conversation

      October 8, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
    • John Gault

      Prayer is not a strategy.

      October 8, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
  9. Where is your God now?

    God is omnipotent and omniscient. As such God is a cruel and evil presence in the universe. Shame on anyone who worships evil. Pity for anyone who is fooled by God.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • Sam235

      Where are you getting your definition of evil?

      October 8, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
  10. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    Free exercise of religion, freedom from religion, and freedom of speech are things we all have a right to. Tax-exempt status is not.

    October 8, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
  11. Trustin N. D'Laud

    We Christians have every right to voice our opinions both in public and in pulpit. Dont like this, move to a country where Christianity is mostly forbidden: Chia, most Muslim "republics, etc. WHilethe "churches" themselves arent forbidden, free exercise of religeon is.

    October 8, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      There's a difference between opinion and a call to action from a perceived authority within an organization.

      October 8, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • Jacky

      If you so called Christians want to do the work of the devil, then do so without tax breaks, you socialists. Another tea partier looking to free load on the backs of working liberals.

      October 8, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
  12. madvaca

    I hope the IRS wastes no time in yanking their tax exempt status

    October 8, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • 24 Hour Crisis Center

      No no no. The IRS needs to just ignore these idiots like they always do. The issue is NOT freedom of speech. Who cares what they say. Let them beg, who cares.

      October 8, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
    • funkymonkey

      well, if this is really a test case, then it would seem that's exactly what such churches would want the IRS to do

      October 8, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
  13. Troy

    isnt it about time the IRS went after these law breakers.
    the answer is yes, your church is still subject to the law

    October 8, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • hnbc

      Yes, it's past time for the IRS to jump all over these tax-exempt churches who are preaching politics. If they want to tell their members who to vote for, fine. Just pay taxes and they can talk all they want to.

      October 8, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
    • Really?

      Liberal pastors–including 99.9% of all minority pastors-preach anti-republican and/or pro-democrat sermons virtually every Sunday. Let's.just take the obvious examples from years past–"Reverend" Jessie Jackson, "Reverend" Al Sharpton, Jeremiah Wright, etc. Now some conservative pastors are getting in on that game, and suddenly they must be investigated by the IRS? Your phony outrage over this is laughable.

      October 8, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
  14. Faithbe

    In the beginning, God created. No one can prove that what he created is still exactly as he created it billions of years ago. Evolution is fact, whether we choose to 'believe' it or not. Facts do not change to suit our whims or low-level understanding.

    The dirty business of politics has no place in God's house! if I went to a church where the pastor deigned to inform how the congregation should vote, I'd stand up and walk out forthwith. And be sure to let them know why!

    October 8, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
    • lol

      Evolution is far from fact..... it is a theory! Anything that changes with each new discovery is not a fact. Frankly, no scientist knows for certain how life came about.....

      October 8, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
  15. CSX

    Amazing how many nion believuing angry lost peole are on these blogs.

    October 8, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      i agree, all these angry christian cult members are pretty scary.

      October 8, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
    • 24 Hour Crisis Center

      Wait, what?

      October 8, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • Trustin N. D'Laud

      "Booty Funk", I reckon your name says it all.......

      October 8, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
  16. CSX

    He is 100% correct. it impossible for you tp vote for a sodomite loving, baby killing president.

    Why not visit your friendly mosque CNN?

    What are they saying?

    October 8, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
    • chubby rain

      Many Christians evidently do...

      October 8, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      god killed untold numbers of babies in his great flood. yup, drowned every baby on earth. pretty disgusting.

      god = baby killer

      October 8, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • Trustin N. D'Laud

      You are right, CSX. This Believer will not be voting for he Kenyan Socialstista, you can bet on that.

      October 8, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
    • Jacky

      Instead you will vote for the party for war, guns, environmental destruction, greed, and denying the poor health care. Yup, no irony from Jesus's message there!

      October 8, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
  17. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    October 8, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sorry, "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things", but your assertions regarding atheism and prayer are unfounded. The degree to which your assertions may represent truths is 0.0. To help you understand the degree to which your assertions may represent truths, I will access my Idiomatic Expression Equivalency module (IEE). Using my IEE module, the expression that best matches the degree to which your assertions may represent truths is: "TOTAL FAIL".

      I see that you repeat these unfounded statements with high frequency. Perhaps the following book might help you overcome this problem:

      I'm Told I Have Dementia: What You Can Do... Who You Can Turn to...
      by the Alzheimer's Disease Society

      October 8, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
    • HeavenSense

      Hi Prayer-bot.

      October 8, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
  18. correctlycenter

    Insults with no scientific evidence to debate believers? Is that the best you can do?

    October 8, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      Unfortunately, you're not willing to debate post and run troll. Not to mention all of your "lies of evolution" have NOTHING TO DO WITH EVOLUTION.

      October 8, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
    • chubby rain

      What beliefs? The earth is 6000 years old? Well, a little thing called radiometric dating is proof that it ain't. Intelligent design? Pick from paleontology, genetics, molecular biology, medicine, etc. There might not be a way to scientifically disprove your god, but there are plenty of ways to disprove the ludicrous assertions that you make.

      October 8, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
  19. correctlycenter

    "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Genesis 1:1...

    October 8, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
    • John Gault

      Why did he create the sun the day after he created plant life? Was it because the priests who wrote Genesis did not yet understand plants need the sun?

      October 8, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
  20. correctlycenter

    Lies of Evolution, pt.3:
    Does life arise spontaneously by CHANCE, as evolution teaches? No, I believe not! The basic axiom of all of biology is biogenesis: Life only arise from life, it doesn't come from NON-LIVING MATTER.
    Evolution is the false indoctrination of entire generations of people in an inerrant belief that there is no God and that we are just animals evolved from slimy algae for billions of years...

    October 8, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
    • Fred

      Here are some of my problems with the theory of evolution:
      -The concept that non-living chemicals can accidentally produce life.
      -Lizards morphed into birds over time (including the part where legs morph into wings and scales into feathers).
      -Some of the changes that evolution touts were in such small incremental gains that you'd really have to have a
      blueprint in mind to get from point A to point Z. Eyes are a great example of this.

      October 8, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • hawaiiguest


      1) Abiogenesis, and as such irrelevant to evolution.
      2) DNA evidence confirms this claim.
      3) Not sure what your point is.

      I'm not sure you actually understand evolutionary theory.

      October 8, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
    • ==o==

      That's not evolution, silly. Try again next time. But I only offer the chance to play once every gestation period. Be forewarned sukkas!

      October 8, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • My goodness you are stupid

      " Does life arise spontaneously by CHANCE, as evolution teaches?"

      My goodness you are stupid. Evolution doesn't say anything about how life arose. You didn't make it through high school did you? I'm surprised you can use a computer

      October 8, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      as @hawaiiguest says, this idea "The concept that non-living chemicals can accidentally produce life" is not addressed by evolution. It is abiogenesis, which is something else.

      Why do some snakes have a pelvis?

      Did the intelligent designer screw up, or did Satan put them there afterwards to confuse the weak of spirit?

      October 8, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
    • Fred

      I'm glad you responded, hawaiiguest.
      Feel free to point to any scientific study that is able to reproduce the non-living chemicals producing life phenomenon.
      Just because it has a name does not mean it is scientific fact. By all means, show us how non-living chemicals can
      somehow someway produce living cells.
      It can't and we both know it.
      DNA does not prove that birds came from lizards. There is so much shared DNA between species that that argument is
      specious at best (pun intended).
      You don't understand my third point? No wonder, it's painful to people who love their theory of evolution.
      The concept that features like eyes or feathers took a long series of changes to achieve the finished product runs counter to the theory. Over the years, the theory has been changed and modified many times in order to try and explain all the
      problem areas and cover cases. Evolution of the species? Sorry, too many holes in that boat for it to float.

      October 9, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.