Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Church and State in an Election Year

On September 28, a number of ministers in conservative churches endorsed John McCain for President from their pulpit during worship services. The event was called "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" and is organized by the Alliance Defense Fund, a religiously and politically conservative legal group founded by key members of the Religious Right (e.g. James Dobson, James Kennedy, etc.) to support conservative causes like opposition to same-sex marriage, prayer in schools, etc. (Read Source Watch's description of the organization.) The event was planned and executed as a direct challenge to the IRS regulation that says in order for a church to maintain its non-profit status, it cannot engage in partisan political activities--namely working on behalf of a particular candidate.

I first heard about the event a while back and paid little attention to it, because it's such an obvious political stunt that is derives from a distorted understanding of the role of religion in a pluralistic democracy. I began paying a little more attention when I heard one of the ministers involved interviewed on NPR. (Yes, I know. All my posts have to do with public radio lately--I've admitted I have a problem.) In addition to the minister who had endorsed McCain, Welton Gaddy was also on as an opponent to ministers endorsing political candidates. Gaddy is a pastor in Louisiana and the president of The Interfaith Alliance, a group of different religious faiths that works to protect religious liberty. I like Gaddy a lot. He's a liberal Baptist--yes there are some, I was one--of the variety that actually remembers that Baptists were once a persecuted minority in colonial America and therefore ought not to impose their beliefs on others. I know, I know, it's hard to believe that there are Baptists who believe such things, given how most Southern Baptists act. Gaddy did an okay job stating his case, but spent more time arguing the broader principles of religious freedom than explaining why ministers should not endorse politicians from the pulpit.

The argument made by the ADF and the ministers in question is that the federal government, specifically the IRS, is limiting their freedom of speech by saying they will lose their tax-exempt status if they endorse a candidate. What they do not say is that ministers can endorse candidates, work for political campaigns and even run for political office without their churches losing their tax-exempt status. It is only when ministers endorse a candidate from the pulpit during the worship of the church or by some other means make use of the church to support particular campaigns that their church can lose its tax-exempt status.

Tax-exemption is a privilege given by government that benefits the church--its property, money, etc. cannot be taxed--and its members--donations to the church become individual tax deductions. The idea behind this status is that houses of worship benefit society as a whole and therefore should be free from taxation. This point is debatable, of course, I have a good friend who argues that churches benefit society no more than many other institutions that are taxed. Another idea behind tax-exemption for houses of worship is that the government should keep its hands off of religious bodies including taxes. This point is also debatable, of course.

Houses of worship, including worship, have spoken out--and indeed must speak out--on important political issues--think Civil Rights, Abolition, Peace/War, etc., but they do not need to become a part of the partisan machine that so dominates our media and culture. I would argue that in order for the church or any other house of worship to have any credibility, it must avoid at all costs endorsing particular candidates. Once a church becomes just another partisan voice in the cacophony of such voices, it loses its ability to speak prophetically to all people in power regardless of their political affiliation.

Furthermore, churches have, as a part of their inherent nature, a duty to work against idolatry--that is, anything that seeks an absolute claim upon a person's identity. No party or person is infallible, and therefore none of them deserve our absolute devotion and none of them are worthy of uncritical support. In order to maintain our devotion to God and hold God as the highest priority of our lives, we must hold fast to the belief that all other entities--including politicians, parties and even the church--are flawed human institutions.

Finally, as Christians we are called to love our neighbors. I believe that part of loving neighbors means allowing them to disagree with us. This happens when we admit to ourselves and others that we do not have all the answers and all truth. When a claim is made that God would have us support one candidate over another, we deny the right of others to disagree with us, because they are not just disagreeing with us but also God and therefore are an enemy of God. By declaring God has chosen one candidate over another, we cut off love towards people who choose a different candidate than us.

I have not hid my own choice for president in this election. Indeed, you only need to check out my car bumper or for that matter just ask me to find out. I've made my choice, however, based on what issues are important to me, which policies I think are best for the country and my own limited and imperfect understanding of what God's mercy and justice look like in the political arena. I don't believe God endorses candidates, and when I hear of ministers who do, I feel sure they have mistaken their own beliefs for the thoughts of God.

Grace and Peace,


P.S. Randall Balmer, Barnard professor and Episcopal priest, has a nice column about the Pulpit Freedom Sunday event that is worth reading.
P.P.S. The Kansas City Star also had a nice editorial regarding this issue on Saturday.

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