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By Orisabiyi Williams
The Black Church was once a place where people went to talk about community, collaboration, education, social justice, politics, and civil rights. Back then, church attendees could be updated on everything they needed to know. My mother told me that, during this period, when a parishioner turned 18, they registered to vote and joined the NAACP in the church.
Black Church pastors from the past were tenacious proponents of civil rights. Everyone knows Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but he was preceded by other change agents. Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, founder of the St. Phillip’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in Georgia, was a minister and an early black nationalist, who advocated for reparations. He was a Republican Party delegate in 1867. In 1870 he started advocating for African Americans’ emigration to Africa.
Adam Clayton Powell, pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, was the first African American elected to New York’s City Council in 1941. He led his 8,000-member strong congregation on many protests. In 1945 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives by advocating for civil rights, including a ban on poll taxes and lynchings.
King, Turner, and Powell left us strong examples, showing how activism can work with religious institutions to create real change. These leaders didn’t recognize a separation between their political work, and their spiritual work within the Black Church.
Today when you visit the Black Church, fashion runways lead to the pews and car shows dominate the parking lots. The bigger the church, the larger the fashion and auto shows. Currently African Americans are suffering from a plethora of issues that stem from lacks of community, organization, satisfactory education, social justice, political tactics, and civil rights. These goals and ideals were the central focus of the traditional black church. The reason the modern black church is silent on these issues is result of the federal tax code, specifically section 501(c)(3) of the US Internal Revenue Code.
In 1954, then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson introduced “the Johnson Amendment,” adding stronger language the 1934 Internal Revenue Code. Section 501(c)(3) gives tax exempt status to nonprofit organizations including religious institutions. The code is enforced by the US Department of Treasury through the Internal Revenue Service.
Section 501(c)(3) restricts organizations from “lobbying,” or “propaganda” and “other legislative activity must be kept relatively insubstantial.” It continues, “intervention in political campaigns or the endorsement/anti-endorsement of candidates for public office is strictly prohibited.”
What does this mean to the Black Church?
It means that most black churches, which are generally located in oppressed communities, can’t effect change in the communities they serve. The black church is inactive and has been in a vegetative state for a very long time. Black churches are the only organized institutions that have African Americans assemble once or twice weekly on Sundays and Wednesdays. The Black Church could use these opportunities to also organize a politically-literate community with a social justice response team to empower and support their communities. The 1954 verbiage was added to the tax code to prevent precisely this type of political engagement.
What is lost when our religious institutions sell their voices on the cheap? Cornell University Law School describes the rights instilled by the First Amendment:
The First Amendment guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition. It forbids Congress from both promoting one religion over others and also restricting an individual’s religious practices. It guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely. It also guarantees the right of citizens to assemble peaceably and to petition their government.
But a church doesn’t need to apply for a 501(c)(3) to be tax exempt. Religious institutions already have tax exempt status based on the Constitution’s provision that prohibits laws which would interfere with the freedom of religion. So, why would a church want to apply for a tax exempt status? Cullinane Law Center explains the benefits of 501(c)(3) status for religious organizations:
- Having 501(c)(3) status allows churches the ability to guarantee that tithes, offerings, and donations are tax deductible to donors, because there is written proof from the IRS that the church is a registered charity.
- Many states do not automatically guarantee sales tax exemption without a 501(c)(3) letter from the IRS.
- Bulk mailing rates and most grants will not be extended to your church or ministry without 501(c)(3) status.
To get a local pastor’s perspective on what 501(c)(3) means for him and his church, I reached out to Pastor Khalil Hakim of Shekinah Glory Praise and Worship Tabernacle in west Tulsa. He told me that without 501(c)(3) status it is “virtually impossible” to receive grants. I asked him if he could put on a number on the amount that churches save by having 501(c)(3) designation, and it he said that it depends on the church’s ministry: “Does it provide free food? Does it provide after school services other social services that will enhance the community? The cost of these services can be expensive to a local ministry … with a 501(c)(3) status” government grants can assist with these costs.
Hakim believes there should be a “clear line between politics and the church,” and doesn’t think that pastors should endorse candidates and parties from the pulpit, but he does think that pastors have a responsibility to their congregations and communities to be involved and informed about “legislation on a local level.” He said that the “church needs to be at the forefront of protesting” any legislation that would negatively affect the community. He concludes by saying an effective church “must address the political and social needs of the community. If not, then it’s just … a spiritual country club where (people) meet 2 to 3 times a week.”
The Gospels relate the tale of Jesus’ trip to a temple in Jerusalem. He finds that merchants have turned the temple into a market, which made him so angry that he took a whip and threw everyone out. People knew turning the Holy Temple into a marketplace was sinful, but they did it anyway because they were motivated by greed, just like racism and socio-economic oppression are born from selfishness and greed. Today’s Black Church teaches us to pray and love each other, which are great lessons, but it takes more than faith and altruism to fight this system of oppression. There must be a drive to fight for what is right, and it necessarily starts with knowledge of self and awareness of global realities.
The Black Church sold that whip of righteous power and free speech for 501(c)(3) tax exempt status. North Tulsans’ life expectancy is an average of 10 years lower compared to South Tulsans, yet we have a church on every corner and all they can do to help our community is sit silently and pray quietly.
An African Proverb says, “When you pray move your feet!” The proverb means that after you pray, you move. If you take one step and then God takes two. But if the Black Church can’t encourage African Americans to take the first steps toward bettering their lives, then their prayers are stunted.
Not only did the Black Church give up freedom of speech, but it sacrificed its feet too!
I can easily imagine Jesus saying, “Don’t bug me, I gave you my whip and you pawned it for a 501(c)(3).”