Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Pulpits, Preachers and Politics: Why “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” is good for America

Sean Ewart

Don't kid yourself, religion and politics are intricately related.
On October 7, 2012, some 1,600 pastors across the United States of America sent recordings of their sermons to the IRS. They were not trying to convert the Internal Revenue Service to Bible banging believers. The pastors, organized by the Alliance Defending Freedom, were engaging in civil disobedience by publicly endorsing a particular politician. This action directly violated IRS regulations governing tax exempt organizations stating that religious groups (and other charities) that endorse a political entity will lose their 501(c)(3) status. 

Although the IRS has enforced this rule in the past, it is increasingly difficult for the IRS to do so following a procedural upheaval in the organization.

“Pulpit Freedom Sunday” has become an annual protest in fact, although this year’s event garnered the most support. According to the Alliance Defending Freedom, the purpose of the event is to force the IRS to take them to court. They want a lawsuit. They want the regulation, known as the Johnson Amendment, that keeps churches from participating in politics without losing their tax exempt status taken before the Supreme Court and overturned. 

From their website:

Since its passage in 1954, the Johnson Amendment has been applied to prohibit what a pastor says from the pulpit concerning candidates who are running for elective office. This means that under current IRS regulations, a pastor cannot say anything from the pulpit that may constitute support for – or opposition to – a political candidate.

And, damn it, they’re almost right.

Even corporations are allowed to voice their support for political campaigns – why not the organizations that claim to commune with god(s)?

It isn’t as if the relationship between religion and politics hasn’t been clear before now. Religious opinions and political behavior walk hand-in-hand. Just look at the attitudes of those who are opposed to gay marriage versus those who are supportive. Religious identity is an incredibly good indicator of someone’s views on gay marriage.

It’s silly to pretend, just because churches and mosques can’t hang campaign posters on their doors, religion has nothing to say about politics in America. And letting them hang campaign posters would only make them slightly more obvious.

One pastor justified his participation in historical terms:

I fully understand that many pastors might never want to endorse a candidate from the pulpit (I have never done so before and I might never do so again). But that should be the decision of the pastors and their churches, just as it was in 1860 when many pastors (rightly) decided they had to tell citizens to vote for Abraham Lincoln in order to end the horrible evil of slavery.

He goes on to list political issues that concern religious people. The list includes abortion, gay rights, taxation and the State of Israel.

“Pulpit Freedom Sunday” should be embraced by the religious and irreligious alike. It stops us from having to beat around the bush. If you don’t want your sermons to be political manifestos, go to a different house of worship – or stop going entirely. But religion and politics are already so closely integrated that repealing the Johnson Amendment only amounts to getting rid of the false-dichotomy that exists today.

If religious institutions spoke more freely about the issues that matter the most to them, then we could have a far more developed conversation about the place of religion in a modern society. It's high time we have that discussion.
But these religious institutions demand the freedom to express themselves politically on the one hand, while still looking for tax exemption on the other. Tax payers should not be asked to shoulder the burden of politically active religious bodies. Religious bodies receive roughly $71 billion in tax subsidies per year. To put this in perspective, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting only takes in $445 million per year from the Federal Government.

Religious bodies should choose: open political expression or government subsidies. I, for one, think this is one line item that should be slashed. 

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