Given the current tax code restrictions on churches with regard to their tax exempt status, coupled with the myopic view of our society (e.g. what is, always was) it may be easy to understand how some people could develop the misperception that churches should have no involvement in the political process, even that such a supposition is a foundational American idea.
In reality, the opposite is true.
From the very foundations of America, faith and religion has played a vital role in civil government. We look back to the Mayflower Compact as the first governing document of colonial America. Yet we should not forget that this governing document, this early constitution, was drawn up by a profoundly Christian people with profoundly Christian influence.
In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, etc.
Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.
Notice the reason the colony was being founded: "for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith."
Most of the colonial charters contained similar language, in that the stated purpose of the colony was for the glory of God, advancement of Christianity, and other such sentiments.
Even into the period of the American Revolution, America remained a profoundly Christian nation. Not only did the Founders declare the independence of this nation based on the revelation "That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights..."; they called upon the "protection of Divine Providence" to make this independence come to fruition.
Many of the clergy were involved in the move for independence and carrying out the war for independence. The wrongs of the crown and the rightness of freedom were often preached from the pulpits. One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, John Witherspoon, was a minister, and several others had been involved in the Christian ministry in some form or another.
Christians were also at the forefront of the abolitionist movement which sought the abolition of slavery. They saw from the Bible that all human beings were equal before God, without regard for skin color, ethnicity or national origin.
Christians were again involved in the civil rights movement, to guarantee the fulfillment of the freedom and equality obtained by the abolitionists and the blood of all those spilled in the Civil War.
So if Christians should have no involvement in public policy, if Christian values should have no influence on public policy, then America would be a very different place...if it even existed at all.
The current restriction on churches which prevents them from endorsing candidates do not come from the Constitution; they are not based on the First Amendment, or even a misrepresentation of the doctrine of "separation of church and state."
They came about in 1954 when Senator Lyndon B. Johnson was being criticized for his liberal policies. He came up with the current restrictions and succeeded in getting them passed into law, restricting nonprofit organizations from speaking for or against candidates.
Despite these restrictions, churches can still speak out for and against laws being considered. They can hold voter registration drives, circulate petitions for or against laws, and can advocate or oppose laws from the pulpit. Churches can't use more than 5-15% of their total resources on such efforts, but much is possible within those parameters. In fact, if a church considered an issue important enough to give up its tax exempt status, it could do so with full freedom to utilize all of its resources, with no legal prohibition whatsoever.
Why should churches be involved in the shaping of public policy? Because most matters of public policy are moral in nature.
There may be some issues that have no moral connection or limited moral connection. For instance, I see no direct moral position on whether term limits should be adopted. The case might be made that term limits or the absence thereof may have subsequent moral consequences, but I see no direct moral result from having them or not.
But things like abortion (murder), marriage (a moral contract between a man and a woman; the safe, proper expression of human sexuality, etc.; the basic foundation of our culture), gambling (violation of a healthy work ethic, danger to the welfare of families, crime resulting from addiction, etc.), crime and punishment and so on are things to which the Bible speaks, and every major religion speaks to some extent.
Just as speed limits apply on our streets whether we like them or not, so most public policy has moral consequences, whether secularists like that or not.
It is the duty of Christians and the church to speak out on the truth of these matters, for the welfare of society; they have no power--without the majority consent of the governed--to force this morality on the country, but they have a duty to make electoral decisions be morally informed decisions.
In fact, Jesus Christ commanded his followers to serve as a beacon of truth in a world that's lost it's way. He told his people:
"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.
Any Christian who does not challenge false assumptions when confronted with them in the public square is derelict in his Christian responsibility.
This responsibility in the public square is not just something that church people dreamed up to interject their morality; it was once recognized as essential by our civic leaders.
This nation's first president, George Washington, said in his Farewell Address at the end of his presidency:
Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens...Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle...
...It is substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government...
...Can it be, that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a Nation with its Virtue?
He also said
"We ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which heaven itself has ordained."
John Adams, the second president of the United States, said
It is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.
Even Thomas Jefferson, one of the least orthodox in his faith, said
Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.
Another of the few least religious of the founders, Benjamin Franklin, recognized the need for virtue in our civilization and public life:
Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.
In summary, the current tax code restrictions on churches involve endorsements of candidates only; they do not prohibit a church from supporting a public measure with moral implications.
The current restrictions also do not spring from a Constitutional source, but the petty actions of a politician 50 years ago who wanted to silence his enemies.
America has a rich tradition of Christian involvement in the public square, and it has been long recognized that such involvement is vital to the health of our republic.
I heard it said that the church is not the servant of the state, and the state is not the servant of the church. But the church is the conscience of the state.
Just as a person can disregard the pleadings of their conscience, no matter how passionate those pleadings may be, so may a state ignore the pleadings of the church for moral solutions, ultimately to national peril.