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The Pulpit and Free Speech?                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Oct/12/2012 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: People, Society, The Law,

Did you hear that, October 7, 2012 was designated at Pulpit Freedom Day? This is a day when hundreds of pastors were expected to openly violate the law of the land and preach politics or endorse political candidates from their respective pulpits. Technically the law they intend to violate is the Johnson Amendment, enacted in 1954. Sponsored by then Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, this law limits the amount of political activity any charity, church or other non-profit organization may do while claiming a tax-exempt status.

In case you were not aware, the Johnson Amendment is essentially an extension or clarification of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. In the First Amendment we have the “Establishment Clause” stating “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. Together with the “Free Exercise Clause” (“…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) we have what is commonly called the “religion clause.” The religion clause is accepted as stating that Congress shall not form a national religion and shall not show any preference of one religion over another. This was written in 1787 as a consensus among all the religious groups in America at the time in order to prevent any one of them from having too much influence over the others or their government.

In case you had not really noticed, the Constitution is written in the form of a contract. Any good contract is effectively an agreement between two or more parties describing expectations and limitations of behavior and performance. The Johnson Amendment of 1954 clarifies the expectation of churches, charities and other non-profit organizations by specifying that they must limit their political activity in order to maintain their tax-exempt status. For most of us, this has been a pretty clear cut notion that we learned in elementary school and have accepted as the law of the land ever since.

When Pulpit Freedom Sunday began in 2008, 33 pastors participated. In 2011, organizers said the number had swelled to 539. As divisive and bipartisan charged as this 2012 political season has been, the expectations were that the number would grow significantly. It now appears that nearly 1500 religious leaders have used this day and their pulpits to endorse political candidates and their agendas, or speak specifically on various local and national propositions. A good example of abuse is the Catholic priest in Texas who told his parishioners in writing not to reelect President Obama. The Catholic Church eventually and formally admonished this Texas priest. Other examples of religious leaders abusing their status on the pulpit include:

• A Baptist Pastor from Charlotte, North Carolina, Mark Harris who specifically endorsed a Republican candidate for the state’s Supreme Court, but did not take sides on the presidential race.

• In Wisconsin, priests are holding weekly “rosary rallies” to pray for Republican vice presidential candidate and native son Paul Ryan.

• There is an organization calling itself “Rabbis for Obama.”

• The largest rabbinic council in America has all but formally endorsed Mitt Romney.

With the advent of modern technologies nearly anyone, including clergy can easily broadcast their support for a candidate or take a partisan stand on an issue very publically.
All of this is being pushed by an organization calling itself the “Alliance Defending Freedom.” Their senior legal counsel, Erik Stanley says their agenda is free speech for everyone without specifically endorsing any candidate or political party. They are specifically hoping for an IRS challenge such that they can take their argument all the way to the Supreme Court. As mentioned earlier, North Carolina Baptist Pastor Mark Harris believes in their agenda. He began his sermon to a congregation of almost 1,000 by stating “I don’t feel I’m breaking the law, ... I am speaking as a pastor and as a citizen of the United States where we have that freedom of speech.”

It seems that Pastor Harris’s view is not a popular one. A number of surveys clearly indicate that Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of hearing political persuasion by their religious leaders. This disapproval runs deep and spans the religious spectrum. More than 75% of Evangelicals Christians surveyed, 69% of Catholics and 77% of Jews surveyed do not want to hear politics from the pulpit. Unfortunately, more than 50% of Jews surveyed also reported politically charged sermons at least monthly.

I understand that religious leaders may feel that their individual right to free speech is being denied, but I would disagree that it actually is. Accepting the duties of leading a congregation is a voluntary, and not a mandatory position. Further, the non-profit status granted for these organizations is a privilege and not a right, granted with specific responsibilities and expectations. Receiving this privilege of non-profit and tax-exempt comes with certain prohibitions against displaying, participating in, or supporting partisanship and politics. Even the argument “I am saying this only as an individual” is weak. Whether by Facebook or a walking interview, it is very difficult for religious leaders to be seen as just individual citizens. As someone else once said, even when the collar or the yarmulke is removed, it is still visible in the mind’s eye.

Even with these restrictions, there is plenty of room for religion to influence society. Fascism, Nazi’s, and other flavors of extremism are all founded in intolerance for other people and their beliefs. The lessons that churches and synagogue teach can easily attack the extremism that festers in society without have to endorse or speak against an individual candidate or proposition.

I am unsure why the IRS is not pursuing some of these religious organizations in court. I suspect there are glaring holes in the wording of the tax codes that they have to close before auditing and making that case in court. Nevertheless, I believe the Johnson Amendment performs a valuable civic function along with mirroring the opinion of a majority of Americans.

Faith has an important role in America and its teachings can guide congregants in making moral and just choices in their lives. Nevertheless, this teaching needs to be more prophetic than partisan. Using the trappings of a religious pulpit to promote a particular candidate as opposed to teaching a value or lesson for living a better life is crossing a moral and ethical line. Most of American law is designed to protect the rights of an individual, especially when they are a minority that is easily trod upon. From this perspective, I am sure the congregational leaders feel that they are being deprived of individual rights to free speech, but I disagree.

The pulpit is a powerful place to speak from with a captive and motivated audience. Nevertheless, the tax exempt status most religious organizations enjoy is privilege and not a right. Like so many other privileges…it comes with restrictions. The pulpit should be used to teach and not to politicize. Please don’t confuse the perceived restrictions placed on an individual right with a privilege provided under specific conditions.

Clearly paying higher taxes for social programs is easy to advocate when your organization does not have to pay them. Of course, there is another option; we could eliminate the tax exemption for religious organizations. Would we all have lower taxes if churches, synagogues and charities had to pay taxes, I’m not sure? I do know that if your religious organization is tax exempt, they should stay out of politics and stick to teaching how to make good moral choices. With those skills, individuals can hopefully and collectively make better political choices.

Using the trappings of religion to promote a political outcome is wrong.

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John D. Rockefeller III
The road to happiness lies in two simple principles: find what interests you and that you can do well, and put your whole soul into it - every bit of energy and ambition and natural ability you have.
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