The students at the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry are encouraged to take risks. After all, what could be more risky than walking up to a total stranger and offering to heal their afflictions by the mere laying on of hands?
It takes a little nerve, a little moxie, and, to his credit, Bethel’s senior associate leader Kris Vallotton, who with lead pastor Bill Johnson co-founded the BSSM in 1998, has no shortage of those particular attributes.
Like their conservative evangelical counterparts across the country, Johnson and Vallotton, the overseers of a multi-million dollar global enterprise that includes the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry (BSSM), Bethel Music, Bethel Publishing and myriad nonprofit religious organizations, have been emboldened by President Donald Trump’s rise to power.
As a candidate, Trump repeatedly promised evangelicals that he’d abolish the Johnson Amendment, the 1954 modification to the U.S. tax code authored by then-Senator from Texas Lyndon B. Johnson. The amendment prohibits tax-exempt nonprofit entities, including churches and religious organizations, from participating in political activities, including the endorsement of candidates.
Nonprofit institutions that violate the amendment run the risk of losing the tax-exempt status granted by the IRS.
Nevertheless, during the 2016 presidential campaign, conservative evangelical pastors ranging from Pat Robertson to Jerry Fallwell Jr. to the once-disgraced Jim Bakker openly flaunted the Johnson Amendment and endorsed Trump for president on their various media platforms, including print, radio, TV and the internet.
Bill Johnson arrived late to the party. In a lengthy Facebook post the day after the election, Johnson explained why he voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton, drawing on the Bible for support. The post went viral for all the wrong reasons, instantly drawing ire from a country still reeling from the unexpected election results, including more than a few of Johnson’s own congregants.
Johnson was reportedly shocked by the negative reaction. The post was deleted from Facebook and since then Bethel’s lead pastor has kept a relatively low profile on political issues.
Not so with Bethel’s second-in-command.
During the past two years, Kris Vallotton has repeatedly tested the tenuous boundary separating church from state in politics. Backed by Bethel’s millions, its sophisticated media apparatus and perhaps most importantly, its 11,000 local parishioners, he wields significant political clout in northern California.
Vallotton is taking a risk, namely that he might run afoul of the Johnson Amendment and lose his organization’s nonprofit status. But as we shall see, it’s a calculated risk. Even if he is breaking the rules, it’s not likely the IRS will come after him, or anyone else for potentially violating the Johnson Amendment.
In that sense, the wall separating church and state has already ceased to exist.
Vallotton’s political activities first gained widespread public attention last year, when he called on his congregation to contact state legislators and protest AB 2943, a bill that would have banned profiting off the sale of conversion therapy services to adults.
The bill was shelved by its author, in part because evangelicals and other conservative Christian groups raised a statewide ruckus.
During the run-up to last fall’s local elections, Vallotton endorsed Bethel elder Julie Winter for Redding City Council in numerous public forums as well as on his blog and Facebook page. She’s since become the mayor of Redding.
Now, Vallotton is publicly endorsing 1st District Assemblyman Brian Dahle in his bid for the 1st District State Senate seat. The special primary election is on March 26.
Last week on his Facebook page, which has 361,000 “likes,” Vallotton posted a seven-minute video of himself interviewing Dahle on topics ranging from small business regulation to the public education’s decline to illegal immigration.
The names of the four candidates running against Dahle were not mentioned during the softball interview. While he stopped short of openly endorsing Dahle, Vallotton encouraged viewers to go to the candidate’s website for more information and to go to the polls. The video serves as a homey campaign commercial for Dahle, and at last count has been shared more than 400 times.
For those followers who didn’t get the hint, the next day, Vallotton posted a photo of his completed mail-in ballot with the bubble next to Dahle’s name filled in:
The photo of Vallotton’s ballot was quickly deleted from his main Facebook page, which is closely identified with Kris Vallotton Ministries. One of my colleagues in the Investigating Bethel Facebook group managed to save a copy before it disappeared.
Kris Vallotton Ministries is a 501(c)(3) religious organization. According to its 2016 tax filing, the most recent year I could find, its only two full-time executives are Vallotton, who serves as president, and his wife Kathy, who serves as secretary.
The total revenue raised by KVM in 2016 was $343,000, verses $281,000 in expenses, including $90,000 for Vallotton’s executive compensation.
The nonprofit’s distinctive “KV” logo graces the top of both of Vallotton’s Facebook pages, right above the blue “donate” button. The contact email address Vallotton provides on the pages is a KVM account. Many of the posts promote KVM or Bethel-related events, and Vallotton uses his main page, officially named “KV Ministries,” as he would a pulpit, communicating directly with his congregants.
Vallotton has some wiggle room here. When he posted the Dahle interview on his main Facebook page last week, perhaps he did it as Kris Vallatton, private citizen, not Kris Vallotton, president of Kris Vallotton Ministries. It’s impossible to tell for certain.
As explained by the IRS publication, “Tax Guide For Churches And Religious Organizations,” pastors and other religious figures have the same constitutionally-protected right to free speech all U.S. citizens enjoy. But as leaders of tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, they are encouraged to exercise caution when making any political statement that could be construed as over the line.
“The political campaign intervention prohibition is not intended to restrict free expression on political matters by leaders of organizations speaking for themselves, as individuals,” the IRS states. “Nor are leaders prohibited from speaking about important issues of public policy.”
“However, for their organizations to remain tax exempt under section 501(c)(3), leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions of the organization.”
Is Vallotton’s Facebook page a private account, or an official promotional arm of Kris Vallotton Ministeries? If it’s the latter, he is “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.”
When a church or a religious organization violates the Johnson Amendment, the IRS calls it an “intervention,” which includes the following activities:
“Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made by or on behalf of the organization in favor of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violation of this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of excise tax.”
Key factors the IRS uses to determine if any given statement constitutes a political intervention include the mention of one or more candidates, remarks made in support or in opposition for one or more candidates, calls to vote for a specific candidate and the statement’s proximity to an upcoming election. This also includes political statements made on the internet.
“A website is a form of communication,” the IRS notes. “If an organization posts something on its website that favors or opposes a candidate for public office, the organization will be treated the same as if it distributed printed material, oral statements or broadcasts that favored or opposed a candidate.”
According to the IRS regulations, it appears likely that Vallotton’s recent political activities, whether he’s behind the pulpit at Bethel or slouched over the keyboard in his office, may violate the Johnson Amendment, at least in spirit if not the letter-of-the-law.
So why does Vallotton keep getting away with it?
The short answer is, Vallotton gets away with it because pastors across the country are getting away with it. Trump and House Republicans continue to attempt to undermine the Johnson Amendment in the name of religious freedom, but truth be told, the IRS rarely enforces it.
According to a study commissioned by the Alliance Defending Freedom—the conservative religious activist group best known for defending a Colorado man’s deeply held religious belief not to bake a gay wedding cake—some 2000 pastors have deliberately flaunted the law since 2008, hoping to get the IRS’s attention. Yet only one has been audited, and no church or religious organization has lost its tax exemption.
That hasn’t stopped Alliance Defending Freedom from continuing to advocate for abolishing the Johnson Amendment entirely.
Abolishing the amendment is almost universally opposed by the nonprofit industry, including most mainline churches and religious organizations. One fear is that potential donors will walk away if they believe their contribution might be diverted to a political campaign.
Another concern is that political donations will be funneled through churches, which have different reporting requirements, making the contributions tax-deductible and difficult to trace.
For those concerned with pastors intervening in political campaigns, it appears that ship has sailed, at least around these parts. If it’s any consolation, Kris Vallotton doesn’t appear to be taking much of a risk at all.