Sunday, October 2, 2011

Pulpit 'freedom?'

If you haven't heard -- and I hope that you haven't -- today was "Pulpit Freedom Sunday." For the uninitiated, it's an annual campaign by the Alliance Defense Fund to protest Internal Revenue Service rules enacted in the 1950s about politicking by churches. The organization believes, and says, that pastors aren't permitted to speak out on "moral" issues lest their churches lose their tax-exempt status.

Here's the problem: The ADF is wrong. On several fronts.

One, I don't know a church in this country that hasn't done so at some point. However, churches have historically never been directly involved in the political process anyway, and until fairly recently states barred pastors from seeking political office. Reason? The church needs to retain its independence and ability to speak God's Word regardless of whoever is in power. Two, even according to IRS rules, pastors are allowed to speak for or against candidates or office-holders in the pulpit. (That has always happened regularly in black churches.)

I suspect, however, that the ADF wants churches to have the ability to work directly for or against candidates. That's inappropriate for a number of reasons, as well as illegal.

For openers, when you examine the entire Scripture, you'll won't find a political candidate that fits every single issue, especially considering that even Christians disagree on politics. My church is as politically divided as any assembly you'll ever see; were my pastor to take sides he'd alienate half the congregation.

Second, working for specific candidates would get in the way of the church's spiritual goals, which are to demonstrate an allegiance only to a different, unseen world. Were the church to get involved in a worldly pursuit as partisan politics it would say that God Himself endorses or opposes such-and-such -- in essence, putting words in His mouth.

Third, the church would forfeit its ability to speak truth to power. Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition gained strength when Bill Clinton was president but withered when George W. Bush went to the White House. (Recall that Robertson ran for president in 1988 on the Republican side.) Even before that, I never heard any pastor critique Ronald Reagan, especially the rampant corruption that took place during his administration; I suspect that's why their legitimate complaints about Clinton's tomcatting fell largely on deaf ears, especially during his impeachment.

And most important, it shows a lack of trust in God to get His work done regardless of the political leadership. This became clear to me when I hear about Christian fears whenever the Democrats get the upper hand in Congress or a Democratic candidate becomes president. Before the 2008 election I received a request to pray for the defeat of Barack Obama; I responded to a e-mail that God wouldn't answer that prayer.

The Binghamton, N.Y. church of Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry took out full-page ads in USA Today and the New York Times just before the 1992 election warning Christians not to vote for Clinton and taking donations to pay for it; for that the IRS slapped it. (I don't know what the penalty was.) At first, I resented that a church was going to tell me how to vote and wrote the church to say so; today, however, I realize that it was acting just like the world. And that's why the ADF appears to be doing as well. Churches need to be free to proclaim liberty, justice and reconciliation -- a concept not always accepted by the politically obsessed.


Mark said...

Hi Rick,Our Patriarchs saw fit in their reverence to God to create a tax exempt statis. As the Church at the time was the Welfare system; it kept burden off the government of the poor. And anyone who could work did; Another new Testiment Ideal we have abandon.The Tax code for non-profit organizations ( including non-Christian charities) grew elaborate. Gifts were not taxed, and special rules meant the organizations payed less tax. But, " Those who consider Godliness gain (Prosperity)" lavishly manipulate the system to horde gifts to " live like Solomon ".Few sharks and wolves would be in the church, if we weren't non-profit.That is why my Business and Ministry will be filed as "For-Profit" with the I.R.S... I want to set an example that will make the Predators queezy. Because, Jesus our God said, " Render to Ceasar what is Ceasars, and render to God what is God's"! It prokes me ,when I see a Black Prophetess, from a movement that beleives to disobey the Prophet is to disobey God, spout a few verses in in a circle, emotionally. Then, "Prophecy" God's Message is give a bundle, don't miss God's move.Not, because I will give. Who trusts a Black Minister more than my Black friends, some of whom barely make ends meet , while faithfully serving God. The Profitess raises money for a greedy White Boy's gold covered Studio Sets,while the struggling Black Christians could have given as God leads to the Orphan, Widow or personal need. That kind of betrayal breaks my heart. Everytime a "Faith Teacher tosses around a Biblical Number (which is accurate) I give to an Mission that amount instead, when I can afford it.Support Christian TV, but be clear to them. You are supporting the Network. Make clear which "ministries" you don't want subsidizied.Nevertheless, sadly and clearer than ever; we get to see before hand why some will say , ' Lord, Lord, yet; depart into weeping and gnashing of teeth. And in case you think I'm an angry Black man bashing preachers. No, I'm northern European, 100% precent white: I love Black preachers and the best modern music comes out of Black Gospel ( of which I have an abundance). Pray before you give. Rich men, pay your taxes and give to the poor, whether the changes get voted in or not. As for me " I will render to Ceasar what is Ceasars and to God what is God's", Jesus did and He is God... God bless you all ,,Black or White... Mark David Madden

Mike Rad said...

This reminds me of the differences between church-state relations in America and Britain. Some of the big names in American political theology--esp. Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder--have done a lot of their writing and thinking in opposition to the moral majority politics you seem to be describing here. Their voices are desperately needed as so many American Christians are possessed of an idolatrous devotion to a particular idea of America and its history.

On the other hand, I think your some of your ideas laid out here are vulnerable to the opposite end of the spectrum. Oliver O'Donovan is one of the leading voices on theology in politics in the U.K., and his thought has been formed in a radically different situation: instead of aggressive conservative dominionism, Britain suffers from entrenched liberal secularism. It is to the point that religion, esp. Christianity, is excluded from having any voice in the public sphere.

The important question I see, then, is "How do Christians engage with politics without falling prey to theonomic idolatry or capitulating to secular oppression?" We cannot give up on the public sphere as a realm of engagement, yet we should not presume to dominate and subjugate other viewpoints by force.