The Library Basement
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Political voices in the American pulpit

On September 28, about 50 American pastors organized by the Alliance Defense Fund will deliberately preach a political message:

For more than a half-century, federal law has restricted the right of most churches and pastors to speak out about candidates for office.  But on Sunday, Sept. 28, about 50 pastors nationwide . . . will deliberately challenge that law by speaking out politically from their pulpits. . . . Pastors long spoke out on great moral issues such as slavery, women’s suffrage, child labor and prostitution. Pastors also have spoken from the pulpit with great frequency for and against various candidates for government office. All that changed in 1954 with the passage of the “Johnson amendment,” which restricted the right of churches and pastors to speak about candidates for office. The amendment . . . changed the Internal Revenue Code to prohibit churches and other non-profit organizations from supporting or opposing a candidate for office.

Did the amendment really restrict the right of free speech?  No:

After the amendment passed, churches faced a choice of either continuing their tradition of speaking out or silencing themselves in order to retain their church’s tax exemption.

Churches and pastors can preach whatever they want to preach.  Whether or not they have the privilege of tax-exempt status is a matter of the content of their message.  Therefore, if a church feels it cannot fulfill its proper role, perhaps tax-exempt status should be abandoned in favor of a prophetic witness. The plan on the 28th is to draw the ire of the IRS and thereby file a lawsuit which can be appealed in hopes of invalidating the Johnson amendment.  I have no idea if it will work, though it is not a bad strategy for affecting political change (I believe the Scopes monkey trials came about in a similar way).  What is disconcerting is that churches who felt political speech was an essential part of their mission were voluntarily silent for 50 years in order to avoid financial hardship. Tax-exempt status is not everything.  Indeed, it might be better for churches to voluntarily renounce it, in the model of the rich young ruler selling all his possessions to follow Jesus.  In doing so they can reduce the power of the state over them.  But I am not convinced that true political preaching has anything to do with political candidates.  I'll repeat part of the quote:

Pastors long spoke out on great moral issues such as slavery, women’s suffrage, child labor and prostitution.Pastors also have spoken from the pulpit with great frequency for and against various candidates for government office.

The portion in bold remains possible for the tax-exempt American church.  This, I think, is the essence of political preaching.  Anything that has to do with a specific candidate is too vulnerable to mere partisanship.

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Category: politics Tags: voting

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