Pulpits and politics


The politically active church seems like a contradiction in terms to me. Politics are temporal; the church is eternal. Politics is the art of compromise; church is the declaration of truth. Politics panders; church challenges. Finally, Jesus said that His kingdom was not of this world. The church exists in the world, but her chief calling is to minister to eternal souls.

Still, there may come a time for pastors to speak to political issues. And one of those times may be Pulpit Freedom Sunday, scheduled for Oct. 2 this year.

The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) organized the first Pulpit Freedom Sunday in 2008 as a way to challenge the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS has exercised a creeping control over what pastors in the United States can say ever since 1954, when Lyndon Johnson found himself in a bruising Senate campaign. His opponent had the backing not of the local church but of right wing organizations that castigated Johnson for being soft on communism. Johnson's amendment to the tax code prohibited any tax-exempt organization to support a particular candidate in elections, and it breezed through the Senate with no debate and no committee hearings. (Could it be that that august body of 98 incumbents saw the value of it for their own future campaigns?)

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The whole issue of tax-exempt status may seem thornier than it really is. Some Christians, including me, have wondered whether churches shouldn't just bite the bullet and pay the taxes in return for political freedom. Or maybe it's just the Christian thing to do; as Paul says in another context, "Why not rather suffer wrong?" (1 Corinthians 6:7).

Presumably, the IRS, deep in its cold bureaucratic heart, believes it's doing its best to accommodate free speech in churches. The agency has tried to delineate what nonprofit groups can do in the context of a political campaign. Every election cycle it sends a friendly reminder to pastors that they can advocate for issues (in a limited way) but not for candidates. What's wrong with that?

The ADF sees potential disaster in that. "The power to tax is the power to destroy," wrote John Marshall (1819) in the McCulloch v. Maryland case, which involved a bank, but the ADF applies Marshall's statement to the Church-in fact, all faiths.

Regulations on speech from the pulpit reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about God-ordained institutions. The IRS sees its bestowal of tax-exemptions as a benefit it graciously grants. This puts the church under the heel of the state, no matter how lightly that heel rests. If the church is to be salt and light as an institution (I'm not speaking of individual Christians here) she must be free. The restrictions not only have a chilling effect on what pastors say from the pulpit, but they also hinder free discussion among Christians about what is appropriate.

Should a Baptist pastor, for example, tell his congregation that if they vote for a certain candidate they should leave the church? That's a subject for legitimate debate among Christians, but if the IRS has already muscled in and revoked tax-exempt status, the issue is moot. The ADF does not approve all pastoral positions, but insists on the right for pastors to speak freely and subject their views to Christian judgment, rather than government.

That's why Pulpit Freedom Sunday was established in 2008 with a handful of pastors, and expanded to include about 100 pastors last year. It's a direct challenge to the principle of government restriction. On that Sunday, pastors record their sermons and send them to the IRS with a demand to be audited. So far the IRS has not responded, suggesting that its code is not as clear-cut as it claims. The ADF invites more pastors to participate this year, and in time hopes to force a reconsideration of the Johnson Amendment. Followed by its abolishment.

State churches (supported by taxes) were the pattern in Europe, eventually leading to empty churches. IRS restrictions could have the same effect here-if not empty churches, empty sermons. If the state claims the power to restrict speech on political issues, what will keep it from restricting doctrinal issues? As the personal becomes more political, nothing at all.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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