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.