Before You Politicize the Pulpit...

By Brian Lee

For the faithful, Sunday worship is a respite from the cares of the world, a time and place offering peace, unity, and refreshment for the soul. What are the odds, with election season in full swing, that worshipers streaming into church this Sunday are looking political advertisements here, from the pulpit?

That's what Jim Garlow and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) are urging preachers to deliver. ADF is promoting October 7th as "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," and is asking ministers to dedicate their sermons to explicit politicking. According to an online pledge, sermons should evaluate the presidential candidates according to "biblical truths and church doctrine," and make a specific endorsement. Launched in 2008, over 500 pastors signed last years pledge, though promotion of the event seems to peak in election years.

ADF's goal is to openly defy the 1954 "Johnson Amendment" to the tax code that prohibits tax-exempt organizations from making political endorsements. The provision has never been actively enforced, and by forcing the IRS to such action ADF hopes to trigger a court challenge and eventually have the provision overturned on constitutional grounds.

It's not clear whether the church doctrines of the Trinity or the hypostatic union should incline one to vote for Romney or Obama, but that is neither here nor there.

ADF believes the Johnson Amendment, though unenforced, nevertheless stifles religious speech of a political nature, silencing ministers by propagating an unconstitutional view of the separation of church and state. Garlow hopes to restore the pulpit to its prior and rightful place in our nation's politics, suggesting it played a leading role shaping public opinion during crusades for independence, abolition, and prohibition.

Constitutionally, ADF may have a great case. In our hyper-politicized age, the line between religious and political speech is an exceedingly difficult one to draw. Teaching on the morality of war and peace, on social issues including marriage, life, and finance are inherently political. It's not clear who in the IRS is qualified to evaluate religious speech for its political content, or what the political support would be for committing a few thousand IRS agents to enforcing this ban.

Perhaps this is why the Johnson Amendment has never been enforced, despite decades of quasi- or outright political activity in the form of voter guides and other exhortation. The degree to which ministers cower in fear of the IRS is questionable, and the role played by preachers in the Civil Rights movement post-1954 is prima facie evidence that the Johnson Amendment doesn't silence voices of faith.

Most would agree that it would probably be best for our political order if an unenforceable ban were no longer on the books, and ADF is correct that we need a renewed affirmation of the freedom of religious speech in the public square. But Pulpit Freedom Sunday clearly has a broader goal, that of encouraging and increasing explicit political content in the Sunday sermon.

But most pastors are reluctant to exchange their spiritual freedom from politics to demonstrate their political freedoms for politics. A survey of 1,000 mainline and evangelical protestant pastors released this week suggests that only 1 in 10 believe they should endorse a candidate from the pulpit, despite the fact that almost half plan to personally endorse outside of their church role.

Furthermore, previous studies have shown that this reluctance isn't based on belief that the government has a say on the content of their speech. Clearly, many pastors are constrained by the sanctity of their office, and in particular, the pulpit. They recognize the very real tradeoff that in our polarized age political speech may offend and drive off many members of the flock they are called to shepherd.

Furthermore, the New Testament offers no encouragement for direct political action. When Jesus was asked a trick question about the propriety of paying taxes -- is there any other kind? -- he asked whose name was on the coin, and told his followers to "Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's." Later, when on trial for his life, he did not deny his royal authority, but instead claimed "My kingdom is not of this world."

At a time when the major issue in Jewish politics was the overthrow of the oppressive regime, neither Christ nor his Apostles had a word to say about it. The Apostles surely could not conceive of a democracy, or shaping imperial Roman policy, yet they urged submission for the Lord's sake "to every human institution." In his letter to the Romans, Paul twice called the deeply flawed governing authority of his day -- that of Nero, persecutor of Christians -- a "minister of God" for good and evil. With Jesus, he urged for this reason the paying of taxes that were owed, along with honor and respect. Clearly, loss of tax-exempt status may be an injustice as well as a threat to our constitutional liberties, but it poses no threat to the well being of the church.

The primary message the New Testament commends to preachers -- "Christ, and him crucified!" -- is scarcely a political one. But this doesn't mean preachers should be constrained from speaking politically. One care barely open one's mouth on a moral question of the day without giving political offense, and no one would suggest God's word has nothing to say on these matters.

But the further the minister of the word ventures from the claim of "thus sayeth the Lord," there is a spiritual and political price to be paid. We risk squandering moral authority and offending the politically disaffected. The Gospel we are commanded to preach to all reaches a precious few, and the heavenly respite of worship becomes a good bit more earthly. Almost a century ago, J. Gresham Machen voiced a similar concern with the rise of politically progressive pulpits:

The preacher comes forward...not with the authority of God's Word permeating his message, not with human wisdom pushed far into the background by the glory of the Cross, but with human opinions about the social problems of the hour or easy solutions of the vast problem of sin. Such is the sermon. Thus the warfare of the world has entered even into the house of God, and sad indeed is the heart of the man who has come seeking peace.

The minister doesn't speak for himself; the title means "servant." Perhaps preachers should ask themselves, before they step up to the pulpit this Sunday, whether they'd feel comfortable reading on behalf of their boss the standard campaign disclosure when they're finished:

"I'm Jesus Christ, and I approve this message."

Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, D.C.

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