The Alliance Defense Fund, a group whose work I usually appreciate, organized an effort by several dozen pastors to defy the Internal Revenue Service regulations prohibiting political candidate endorsement from the pulpit. This was presented by the ADF as an initiative to secure freedom of speech for the pulpit, but I think it a foolhardy move on the part of the pastors.
Earlier this week, ADF senior lawyer Erik Stanley said this:
Pastors have a right to speak about Biblical truths from the pulpit without fear of punishment. No one should be able to use the government to intimidate pastors into giving up their constitutional rights. If you have a concern about pastors speaking about electoral candidates from the pulpit, ask yourself this: should the church decide that question, or should the IRS?”
ADF is not trying to get politics into the pulpit. Churches can decide for themselves that they either do or don’t want their pastors to speak about electoral candidates. The point of the Pulpit Initiative is very simple: the IRS should not be the one making the decision by threatening to revoke a church’s tax-exempt status. We need to get the government out of the pulpit.
Churches were completely free to preach about candidates from the day that the Constitution was ratified in 1788 until 1954. That’s when the unconstitutional rule known as the “Johnson Amendment” was enacted. Churches are exempt from taxation under the principle that there is no surer way to destroy religion than to begin taxing it. As the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, the power to tax involves the power to destroy. The real effect of the Johnson Amendment is that pastors are muzzled for fear of investigation by the IRS.
Stanley is right about the constitutional history, and the story surrounding the Johnson Amendment (named for author Lyndon Johnson, who wrote it while in the Senate as a way of muzzling non-profits giving him fits back in Texas) is more than a little sordid, and it should be repealed if for no other reason than for being a blight on the freedom of speech. He’s also right about the tax exemption for churches, which isn’t a gift from the government for good social works, but a protection for religious freedom.
All that said, pastors should not have gotten involved in this. It’s true that you can’t bring a court case on an abstract question, but have to have real people with real interests involved, but that’s ADF’s problem. Pastors who are getting into partisan politics in the pulpit are abusing their office and their calling. Preach about moral issues in light of Scripture and theology all you want, but when you get partisan you wind up portraying God as a mere politician. You also, incidentally, buy into the fallacy of the religious left (which contends that they have some kind of mandate to stamp God’s imprimatur on to prudential political, social, and economic measures), since choosing between political candidates is by its very nature a matter of prudential judgment. That’s something that all Christians are called to do as they live as citizens of a democratic polity, but it has no place in the proclamation of God’s eternal Word. By helping the ADF pursue their legal crusade, these pastors are doing an enormous disservice to their congregations, and the ADF is doing one to the churches that it is supposed to be dedicated to serve.