Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Good Word About a Bad Idea

Evidently, the Alliance Defense Fund has come up with an incredibly stupid idea. They want to recruit scores of pastors by this coming Sunday (September 28th) to blatantly endorse political candidates for office. Their purpose is intentionally to provoke I.R.S. investigations of those churches with the goal toward litigating a lawsuit over the matter.

As you are probably aware, a local church is tax-exempt. That means that it cannot be active in endorsing candidates for political office. A local church (or pastor of that church) can speak out on any issue they so desire. But they cannot formally endorse political candidates. If they do so they run the risk of investigation by the I.R.S. and ultimately could lose their tax-exempt status. That means among other things that any donations to that church would no longer count for income tax deductions which would kill the fund-raising efforts for the church's budget.

There are good reasons for this prohibition. First, those of us who love and read history know the problems that are created when the church gets into bed with the state or when the state gets into bed with the church. When the "wall of separation" between the two institutions is breached ultimately, both institutions lose out. All you have to do is read the history of Christianity from the 4th to the 17th centuries and you will see how devastating union of church and state can be for Christianity. Second, the church always needs to have a prophetic voice in society, particularly against the state. When a pastor or church endorses a candidate, that pastor or church ultimately loses the prophetic high ground and no longer maintains objectivity. It makes it much more difficult to speak a prophetic word when that candidate needs it.

Of course, as you can probably guess, their real intention is not to have "freedom" in the pulpit. Their real intention is to find a legal way to allow conservative, megachurch pastors to endorse candidates so that their church members can go to the polls and vote a certain way.

Thankfully, Rev. Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Commitee for Religious Liberty has spoken out about this ridiculous idea and has spoken a good word about it. He went into the "lions' den" and discussed the idea on Fox News. Here is a link to a story about his comments in the interview.


Basically, Brent said three things: (1) "Pulpit freedom" is a misnomer because pulpits are already free in America. How many examples can you think of when authorities have broken into a conservative Baptist church and carried away a pastor in handcuffs for preaching out about a social issue such as homosexuality or abortion? How many instances can you think of when a liberal church pastor has had a sermon interrupted by civil authorities and that pastor then taken away for preaching about gay rights or opposing the war? It happens in countries where there is no such thing as religious freedom and separation of church and state. But it does not happen here. Ever heard of the Westboro Baptist Church? As repulsive and abrasive as their pastor is, he still has the freedom to proclaim whatever he wants from the pulpit. Pastors aren't arrested for addressing moral issues from the pulpit. But, if they endorse a candidate, the church is at risk of losing its tax-exempt status and rightly so.

(2) Walker also said that this idea of a "pulpit freedom" sunday is a bad idea because of the dissension that it could create within the body of a local congregation. Let's face it, most congregations are very diverse politically. I have served as interim pastor of congregations that had politicians who represented both the Democratic and Republican parties. I would have been committing clergy suicide if I had climbed into the pulpit and endorsed one candidate over another!

(3) Finally, Walker said that the idea is totally unnecessary. "There is no ground swell of enthusiasm for it. In fact, a recent survey reveals that more than half think religion and politics generally have become too closely tied (52 percent). The number is even higher when asked about the specific practice of endorsing from the pulpit.”

Thank you Brent Walker and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty for speaking a good word about a bad idea!

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