Is the ERLC Breaking the Rules?

Dr. Rick Patrick | Senior Pastor
First Baptist Church, Sylacauga, AL

Recently, the Council on American-Islamic Relations called upon Dr. Ben Carson to withdraw as a candidate for the Presidency of the United States of America. In response to their clear campaign against him, Dr. Carson called upon the Internal Revenue Service to enforce the provision below, which “absolutely” prohibits all section 501(c)(3) organizations from “directly or indirectly” participating in any political campaign “on behalf of or in opposition to” any candidate for office.

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. The Restriction of Political Campaign Intervention by Section 501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Organizations

Whether or not CAIR will lose their tax-exempt status is a matter for the courts to decide, but it seems patently clear to me, as I think it would to most impartial observers, that this organization is participating directly in opposition to Ben Carson’s campaign for the Presidency. In other words, they are in violation of an IRS rule for 501(c)(3) organizations—whether or not they ever pay a price for it.

While contemplating this news story the other day, I began to ruminate about another 501(c)(3) organization—one to which I contribute—that is likely guilty of participating indirectly in opposition to a candidate for office, an action which is a clear violation of the IRS rule listed above. In this case, it concerns the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and remarks made by President Russell Moore in opposition to the campaign of Donald Trump.

Although Moore does not come right out and say, “Do not vote for this person,” a statement which might be classified as “direct” opposition, he does clearly imply such a course of action with statements that might be classified as “indirect” opposition. Moore singles out Trump among all the candidates in the race for the presidency and discusses only Trump’s moral flaws and failures. The implication is hard to miss: “Whoever you decide to vote for, Christian, don’t vote for Trump.”

The rule could not be any clearer. In the same way that Pastors, speaking on behalf of their churches, cannot endorse or oppose specific candidates, neither can Russell Moore when he is speaking as the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. As you consider Moore’s statements reprinted below, ask yourself the question: “Could these statements reasonably be considered as ‘indirectly’ participating ‘in opposition to’ a candidate for elective public office?”

“Watching a cartoonish TV character deliver authoritarian lines with no principles, just audacity, was hilarious back then, but that was before we saw it happening before our eyes in the race for the United States presidency.”

“Most illogical is his support from evangelicals and other social conservatives. To back Mr. Trump, these voters must repudiate everything they believe.”

“His attitude toward women is that of a Bronze Age warlord. He tells us in one of his books that he revels in the fact that he gets to sleep with some of the ‘top women in the world.’ He has divorced two wives (so far) for other women.”

“And yet, he regularly ridicules evangelicals, with almost as much glee as he does Hispanics.”

“Still, the problem is not just Mr. Trump’s personal lack of a moral compass. He is, after all, a casino and real estate mogul who has built his career off gambling, a moral vice and an economic swindle that oppresses the poorest and most desperate.”

“In a time when racial tensions run high across the country, Mr. Trump incites division, with slurs against Hispanic immigrants and with protectionist jargon that preys on turning economic insecurity into ugly ‘us versus them’ identity politics.”

“When evangelicals should be leading the way on racial reconciliation, as the Bible tells us to, are we really ready to trade unity with our black and brown brothers and sisters for this angry politician?”

The issue of whether or not Moore’s observations have any merit, though perhaps an interesting topic to discuss, is beyond the scope and beside the point of this essay. The present question we are exploring is simply this: “Do the statements above represent a ‘direct or indirect’ participation ‘in opposition to’ a specific candidate for elective office?”

I believe one can make a convincing case that Dr. Moore is indirectly telling evangelicals specifically not to vote for Donald Trump. Moore is not addressing policy matters and decisions in a general manner. He is not addressing the moral flaws of all the politicians in the race. He is laser focused on one candidate only, and he describes this candidate not as a successful businessman and teetotaling member of a Presbyterian Church, but in the most pejorative terms available within his polished and sophisticated vocabulary.

To clarify, this essay is in no way intended to “Stump for Trump.” Rather, it endeavors to ask a question concerning the compliance of the ERLC with the Internal Revenue Code. Moore was clearly identified in The New York Times piece as President of the ERLC. If the Council on American-Islamic Relations is not permitted by IRS rules to oppose Ben Carson, then on what basis is the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission authorized to oppose Donald Trump? Having been led to believe that the new ERLC would be getting Southern Baptists out of politics, this is a very strange way of doing so.