Pulpit Freedom Sunday this year was October 2. While that probably disqualifies it as a topic for current event discussion (especially given the fast moving pace of the blogosphere), I decided to write on this topic because I have heard Christian radio programs continuing to speak about it.
For those who might not know, Pulpit Freedom Sunday is a Sunday each year when participating clergy (I’m not sure how many, but I’m pretty sure it’s relatively small in relation to the overall number of clergy in the United States) purposely preach sermons that violate an IRS tax code which says that certain charitable organizations cannot explicitly endorse political candidates without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status. There’s a bit more to it than that, but that should be enough background for us to launch into the body of this blog entry together.
As you might have gathered from the title, I do not support the Pulpit Freedom Sunday movement, and I want to explain why. But first, a caveat:
Depending on what you have in mind, I think it is perfectly fine for the Church to be involved in politics. True, the Scriptures teach that Christians are citizens of a Kingdom that is not of this world, one that has yet to fully appear. At the same time, the Kingdom has come in part: an established front before the true invasion begins, a seed germinating just below the surface before it suddenly springs into full bloom — there are a variety of helpful images from which to choose. Christians are to live out the reality of the coming full reign of God and to exhort others to submit to the reign of God now. And it turns out that God has quite a few things to say about what things will look like when the Kingdom finally, fully comes, about how the poor will be treated, about how human dignity and value will be measured, about war and peace, about ethics, morality, sin, and salvation. All kinds of stuff. While it would be naive in the extreme to believe that we can bring about the Kingdom — make Heaven on Earth, if you will — preaching the Kingdom, living out the Kingdom, and pleading with others to do the same are all part of the Christian mission.
For current mailing address, just put “Not of This World.” For party affiliation, put “Jesus.”
That said, here are some thoughts on why I do not support the Pulpit Freedom Sunday movement:
FYI, Churches are not being specially targeted by these tax laws. The laws apply to a wide range of nonprofit organizations that do not have political involvement as their primary purpose.
These tax laws help protect the political process. I think it’s a great thing that people can’t just funnel money into any ole nonprofit, all the while avoiding being taxed on the funds, turning them into megaphones for particular candidates. Politics in this country is controlled by money and corruption enough as it is.
Whatever their intentions, these tax laws actually protect the Church. I don’t have space in this blog entry to give even a cursory review of church history, but let me just say this: in situations where it is suddenly politically advantageous to join the Church, disaster tends to follow. If churches could suddenly start endorsing candidates, the likely scenario in my mind is that churches would soon become enslaved to lobbying interests, political parties, and particular candidates. If pulpits suddenly became free campaign stumps, do you really think that many churches could protect processes like membership, selection of clergy, or tithing/giving for long?
Sorry , everyone, but it looks like we won’t be able to finish the new sanctuary until the next important election.
These tax laws DO NOT say churches cannot be involved in politics. As far as I can tell, the restrictions say that churches cannot a) endorse a specific candidate, or b) spend a “substantial” amount of their resources and activities trying to influence legislation. I only gave the IRS tax code a brief look over (and I’m not a lawyer, but I watched alot of Matlock growing up, as well as the movie, My Cousin Vinny), but here are a few things I figured out I could do as a pastor at my church:
*preach an entire sermon on why I think abortion is right/wrong, what I think the Old Testament teaches us about how to treat immigrants, or what the Scriptures say about homosexuality
*preach an entire sermon in which I do nothing but explain to my congregation what an upcoming piece of legislation says and means as long as I don’t tell my congregation how to vote on it
*preach an entire sermon on what a godly leader might look like, as long as I don’t start saying so-and-so candidate is someone God would want us to vote for, and so-and-so candidate is not.
*use the church building as a voting center
*have copies of certain political materials available for members of my congregation
The prophetic voice of the Church must remain unfettered. Properly understood, the Church is a nation calling other nations to live as all nations ought to in light of the fact that God reigns. Now if indeed God reigns, then of course the Church has quite a bit to say about the sloppy, messy business of life on this earth, even in areas we might deem “political.” But if the fundamental message of the Church is “Jesus Christ is Lord” (In other words, God reigns through his Christ), then it is of fundamental importance that we do not point to anyone or anything else but Jesus as the source of hope for mankind. There is nothing to be gained by the Church by endorsing specific politicians or political parties, and there is much to be lost.
Can you seriously think of a politician worth hitching Jesus’ wagon to? Is this really a situation where you want to risk the Church’s credibility by saying, “Thus, saith the Lord”? I will be the first to admit that I am incredibly cynical when it comes to politics, but just think about the political scene in this country over the last — well, really whatever time frame you want to use. Given all the corruption, greed, immorality, and incompetence in politics in this country, do you really want to pull the trigger and say, “Yep, now this is a person God would be psyched to see in office! As someone who has the Spirit of God and is in a personal relationship with Him, I am totally comfortable saying this man/woman is His choice from the field of contenders!” I usually just vote for the least worst candidate, personally. So even if churches could endorse specific candidates, would you really want to?
In light of the upcoming Advent season, I would encourage you to vote for whichever candidate you think would be least likely to make Baby Jesus cry …
Any church that really feels God calling it to primarily exist as a a political machine is more than welcome to become one. They simply are choosing to no longer primarily be a charity that qualifies for tax exemption. No one is going to drag your pastor away in the middle of the night here, okay? And your church is more than welcome to participate in the political process as congregants (no one is saying individual Christians can’t champion a candidate as God’s choice) and even as a congregation within certain limitations. If you find those limitations restrictive, that’s fine. But if you are going to become a lobbyist group for a certain candidate, then that changes the nature of your organization, and you need to be willing to play by new rules.
If you really feel like you have to bring God’s ballot down from the mountain top for your congregation (and let’s just not worry for now about why you feel you are qualified to do so), then you have much bigger problems as a pastor than the “freedom” of your pulpit. Are the discipleship programs at your church so poor or the training you give your congregation in listening to and following the Spirit so inadequate that you really don’t trust your congregation to vote wisely? Is your congregation so insensitive to God, so ignorant of his Word, so anemic in their lives before Him that it is not enough to teach them how to think about politics in a godly manner, but you actually have to hold their hand while they check the right box on the ballot? If that is the state of your church, then quite frankly, fellow pastor, you have far greater concerns to address!
Not trust my fellow Christians to vote their conscience without me looking over their shoulders? How otterly ridiculous!
The pulpit is a powerful symbol of moral and spiritual authority. We would do well to guard what is and is not said by those who stand behind it. But let us make we understand what we are guarding and why.
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)