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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. 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 other change agents preceded him. 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 gave us strong examples of 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.

The Transformation of the Black Church: From Social Activism to Silence

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, Black Americans are suffering from a plethora of issues that stem from a lack 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. In addition, the modern black church is silent on these issues because 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 to the 1934 Internal Revenue Code. Section 501(c)(3) gives tax-exempt status to nonprofit organizations, including religious institutions. The US Department of Treasury enforces the code through the Internal Revenue Service.

Section 501(c)(3) restricts organizations from “lobbying” or “propaganda,” and “other legislative activity must be kept relatively insubstantial.” Moreover, 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, generally located in oppressed communities, can’t effect change in their communities. The black church is inactive and has been vegetative for a very long time. African Americans assemble once or twice weekly on Sundays and Wednesdays in black churches, the only organized institutions for this purpose. 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 vocabulary added to the tax code was intended precisely to prevent 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 petition rights. 

  • Forbids Congress from promoting one religion over others
  • Forbids Congress from restricting an individual’s religious practices
  • Guarantees freedom of expression
    • Prohibits Congress from restricting the press
    • Protects individuals’ rights to speak freely
  • Guarantees the right of citizens to assemble peaceably
  • Guarantees the right of citizens to petition their government

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Sacrificing Freedom of Speech and Action

But the Black 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 that 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 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 and 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.

Church’s Role in Politics and Community

Hakim believes there should be a “clear line between politics and the church.” He doesn’t think that pastors should endorse candidates and parties from the pulpit. However, he does believe that pastors have a responsibility to their congregations and communities to actively engage with and stay informed about “local-level legislation.”

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.

The Black Church

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 makes him so angry that he takes a whip and throws everyone out. People knew that turning the Holy Temple into a marketplace was sinful, but they did it anyway because greed motivated them, just as selfishness and greed gave rise to racism and socio-economic oppression.

A Spiritual Perspective

Today’s Black Church teaches prayer and love, valuable lessons, but confronting this system of oppression requires more than faith and altruism. A drive to fight for what’s right begins with self-awareness and global awareness.

The Black Church sold that whip of righteous power and free speech for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. North Tulsans have a life expectancy that averages 10 years lower than South Tulsans. Yet, we have a church on every corner. All they do to help our community is sit silently and pray quietly.

A Critique in the Context of Faith

An African Proverb says, “When you pray, move your feet!” The proverb means that after you pray, you move. If you take one step, then God takes two. Failing to encourage African Americans in the Black Church stunts their prayers.

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).”

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