Friday, September 26, 2008

Religion and Politics

Is the demand that pastors not discuss or endorse specific candidates from the pulpit a reasonable expectation given churches' tax exempt status, or an unlawful intrusion into the rights of free speech and freedom of religion? This could get interesting:

During sermons this Sunday, some 35 pastors across the country will tell their congregations which presidential candidate they should vote for, "according to the Scriptures."

Their endorsements represent a direct challenge to federal tax law, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations from engaging in partisan political activity.

The clergy have embraced that risk, hoping their actions will trigger an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service, which would then enable a Christian legal advocacy group to take the IRS to court and challenge the constitutionality of the ban.

The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a conservative legal group based in Arizona, recruited the pastors for "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" to press their claim that the IRS tax code violates the free speech of religious leaders.

"I have a First Amendment right to say whatever I want to say, and I've never thought it was appropriate that as a pastor I could not share my political concerns with the congregation," says the Rev. Gus Booth, pastor at Warroad Community Church in Warroad, Minn.

Mr. Booth will endorse Sen. John McCain on Sunday, and has already told his congregation that as Christians, they could not vote for Sen. Barack Obama due to his position on abortion.

I think that this is a generally a good thing for these pastors to be doing, and I'd support it even if they weren't endorsing McCain--thought the endorsement of Democrats by pastors goes on all the time, and nobody talks about removing the tax-exempt status of the pastors who mix religion and politics and come up with a decidedly leftist brew. Pastors and other religious leaders shouldn't have to censor themselves when they are preaching; if a candidate's position on moral issues is clearly opposed to the church's teachings, the pastor should feel free to say so.

That said, aside from issues with direct moral ramifications I don't think pastors or priests or ministers or rabbis should be overly concerned with politics in their preaching. I can't imagine St. Paul in his various epistles going off on a several-page tangent about the Roman Empire's acquisition of some new territory, or loss of some other; it would have been out of place, and it still would be. Those who preach the Gospel should be watchful in regard to the world, but not unduly concerned with purely worldly matters; the temptation to abuse the power of the Cross for temporal gain, especially political gain, is hardly a new phenomenon.

Still, in treading with due caution and for serious reasons into the realm of the political, I'd rather trust religious leaders than secular ones. A religious leader who finds that he has foolishly endorsed a candidate not worthy of endorsement can always repent; a government which takes it upon itself to censor religious expression may not stop at the political, but may, indeed, reach out to stifle that call to moral correction contained in speech against abortion, contraception, homosexual activity, same-sex marriage, and the like until the Gospel may no longer be preached without being muzzled.


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eutychus said...

I lean toward doing away with the tax exempt status, thus ceaser's muzzle. There are times when the Church must speak politcally and by this I don't mean taking a side per se. In fact one could say that the Church's speech is by nature political.