Let Religion Have a Voice

This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on March 5, 2007. A shorter version will air on KQED FM’s Perspectives series soon. Stay tuned.

Last month, Walter Cronkite came to San José to speak on behalf of “First Freedom First,” a national campaign seeking to reinvigorate the American commitment to separating Church and State by preserving our government’s secular inclinations in matters such as public education and health care policy.

By temperament and proclivity, I have a hard time disagreeing with Cronkite and his fellow activists. I don’t want my children to be taught creationism instead of biology; I don’t believe external religious mores should come between a patient and her doctor; I don’t think the mandates of one person’s sacred text should keep another person from marrying the man of his choice.

But I’m not entirely sold on the “First Freedom First” agenda because part of what is being promoted is a call to silence houses of worship by keeping them from endorsing or opposing political candidates.

The tax law that governs non-profit organizations already keeps houses of worship from making political endorsements, and I’ve never liked that restriction.

Houses of worship are not inanimate objects. They are congregations of people, and if those people, by vote or through the voice of an ordained leader, want to endorse or oppose a political candidate, I suspect our democracy can make room for that.

This can be especially important when unsavory candidates run for office. Take, for example David Duke, a Klansman, a shameless anti-Semite, and an occasionally successful candidate for various political offices in Louisiana. It seems unreasonable not to allow congregations–especially African American churches and Jewish Synagogues–to campaign against David Duke. Such opposition would be a benefit to American society.

Or consider the less repugnant but still venally offensive political campaigns of Catherine Harris in Florida. The former congresswoman stated publicly that she considered the separation of church and state to be an unconstitutional construction of the Jeffersonian imagination. No well meaning statement from People for the American Way will convince her adherents that she’s dangerously wrong, but well crafted and thoughtful political opposition from houses of worship may convince would be supporters that Catherine Harris’ ideas about the First Amendment are as bad for American people of faith as they are for America’s constitutional democracy.

History does not look kindly upon religious institutions that have said nothing in times of great public moral crisis. No one savors the silence of Christian congregations during the Holocaust, for example, and all of us applaud Martin Luther King’s scolding of quietly moderate southern churches from his cell in the Birmingham jail. Making statements for or against candidates is an important way in which religious organizations can take a stand on matters of contemporary social importance.

Giving congregations the freedom to endorse or oppose candidates would mean giving religious voices a platform similar to those enjoyed by everyone from the ACLU to the John Birch Society, from Halliburton to MoveOn.org. Lending a public ear to a few Methodists, or Mormons, or Muslims actually might do us some good.

13 thoughts on “Let Religion Have a Voice

  1. Now you are meddling, Benjamin. The Presbyterian Church historically has been the Republican Party at worship. We didn’t have to say anything to the pew. It was known, intuitively, for whom you should vote. You knew who the good gals and the bad gals were. The only dissadents to be found in the PCUSA were on the National Level and they were making pronouncements that didn’t set well in the pew. They were marching in Selma, pro the UN and the National Council of Churches, pro-Choice, pro prison reform, pro immigration reform, pro Gay Rights, pro higher minimum wage, pro women in leadership, pro Afirmative Action, pro Green,….. Currently, the Pew is warring against the National Office….starving it, trying to silence it’s Pro Platform. Where is Ross Perot now that we need him? There is a Whoooshing sound in the Presbyterian ethos.

    In our Sunday School Class last Sunday morning, our teacher put up three faces of American Christendom on the Power Point screen…..Robertson, Fallwell and Dobson….and under their pictures he put this caption…..”The American Talliban”. Are you sure you want these three telling us how to vote? I guess it would be American, but it sure does smart at times. Selah!

  2. Ben, I think you’re spot-on. The arguments ginned up by the likes of First Freedom First seem to have a lot to do with silencing voices they don’t particularly like, and have nothing to do with separation of church and state — a concept, by the way, that originally was designed to protect the church(es) from the state, not vice-versa.

    There is nothing wrong with religious organizations or individual pastors — or for that matter, individual congregation members — speaking out on any issue of concern to them. Indeed, should not such organizations and individuals be expected to speak out? For instance, over the decades and in various places (including California), there have been various tax measures that would have applied to private schools, traditionally run by religious denominations. Should they be expected to remain silent on a matter that affects them directly? For that matter, don’t national elections affect us directly?

    As for the “Republican Party at worship”, my personal experience at church and presbytery level, when it comes to it, is vigorous discussion on all sides of the issue. Our presbytery’s battles over gay ordination and endorsement of relationships a few years back comes to mind.

    A Sunday school teacher who vilifies other Christians — whether I personally agree with their positions, or not — tells me all I need to know about the Sunday school and the teacher in question.

  3. Ronn,

    I hear you, but I’m sure I’m ready to throw out the good voices just so I can silence the unsvaory ones. I don’t want Robertson, Falwell and Dobson telling folks how to vote. But I’m glad MLK was involved in the political scene. And I’m distressed the the Bush Administraiton is trying to silence All Saints Passadena over it’s stance on the war. I’m bothered that I have to worry about my church’s tax bill when I go down to city hall in my collar to preach public morality to our civic leaders because a local business that is profiting from the Bush Administration’s use of torture to execute the war on terror.

    These are difficult times, indeed!


  4. Ben,

    Martin Luther King, Jr. never once told anyone who to vote for. He spoke out on important social justice issues of the day — just as any member of the clergy can do today — and had faith that his followers could decide for themselves who to cast their vote for.

    Houses of worship, like every other tax exempt 501c(3) organization, are only prohibited from engaging in partisan (as defined by the IRS) political activity. The IRS defines partisan as supporting or opposing a political candidate or political party.

    Unless the ACLU or the John Birch Society has a PAC, they are prohibited from supporting or opposing candidates or political parties as well.

    No where in the regulations does it say that houses of worship can’t speak out about poverty, the war, reproductive issues or gay rights. They absolutely can address social justice issues from the pulpit, and as you mentioned, should!

    And I can assure you, as a staff person at Americans United for Separation of Church and State (who is partnering with The Interfaith Alliance Foundation on the First Freedom First project), that in our role as watchdog we treat everyone the same. We have reported activity on behalf of both Democrats and Republicans.

    One of the reasons this concerns us so much can be best illustrated by a real event that took place at East Waynesville Baptist Church, in North Carolina. According to news media reports, the pastor told members of his congregation that they must vote for President George W. Bush. Nine members who did not do so were told to leave the congregation. An additional 40 members reportedly left in protest.

    Some of the nine had been members of the church for 30 and 40 years. They were devastated at being asked to leave their spiritual home. Houses of worship exist to bring people together for worship, not split them apart over partisan politics.

    I hope you will join with us in safeguarding separation of church and state, and protecting religious liberty, by signing the First Freedom First petition.

    Beth Corbin
    AU project director for First Freedom First

  5. Beth,

    Thank you for your note. I hear you, and believe me when I say that I abhor the kind of partisan politics you describe as having been spewed from the pulpit of East Waynesville Baptist Church. But I’m still not convinced, and here are a few reasons why:

    1. I’m not sure how you draw the line between speaking about social and political issues from the pulpit (something you support) and making specific political endorsements. This, too, is a very real issue. All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena is currently fighting to keep its tax exempt status because a guest preacher gave an anti-war sermon on the eve of the 2004 presidential election. I’ve preached anti-war sermons. I’ve spoken out publicly against the Bush Administration’s use of torture in the war on terror. I’ve marched for immigrant rights, leading 125,000 fellow marchers in prayer in support of undocumented workers. These are live political issues. My actions could very easily (and very accurately) be described as being partisan, and—if All Saints Episcopal is a standard—leave my church open to be investigated by the IRS.

    2. Each denomination and house of worship has different rules governing what constitutes an “official” endorsement or opposition of a candidate. Under Presbyterian Polity, for example, I can preach a sermon in support or in opposition of a political candidate, but until the church’s session—its board of elders—takes action one way or another there has been no official endorsement. Technically, when I’m speaking publicly on important political issues, it doesn’t mean my congregation has taken a stand. But that may not be so for the local Imam, rabbi or Catholic priest. I’m not sure we want the courts deciding which principles of cannon law to establish as a standard for deciding when a house of worship has crossed the line into an official political endorsement.

    3. You write “Houses of worship exist to bring people together for worship, not split them apart over partisan politics.” Neither you or I wants to attend a house of worship that uses politics as a spiritual wedge, but I don’t think that the government has any business having an opinion about why houses of worship exist. In my opinion, the use of tax law to regulate and limit otherwise legal activity in houses of worship is a violation of the far side of the wall that separates church and state: Congress shall make no law… prohibiting the free exercise [of religion].

    When the pastor at East Waynesville Baptist Church preaches an inappropriately political sermon (or when I do, for that matter), it is the church’s job to censor him (or me). One of the great innovations worked out by John Calvin in sixteenth century Geneva was that civil and criminal courts should have no authority in ecclesiastical matters. It was a suggestion that resonated with our nation’s founders, and it is reflected in the first amendment. When the government starts meddling in church discipline, it starts to feel like an inquisition.

    4. In disagreeing with me on this, you are in good company. A lot of people I like and admire think I’m crazy, and maybe I am, but I still have yet to hear anyone take on my suggestion that synagogues and black churches should be allowed officially to oppose the candidacy of David Duke the next time he runs for public office. (Have you seen this guy’s website?) As much as I think the pastor of East Waynesville Baptist Church should be taken to the cleaners by his congregation and/or his denomination, I believe his right to preach politically offensive sermons should be protected, if only to protect the right of rabbis and pastors in Louisiana to preach sermons that denounce David Duke when he runs for office.

    This is a good conversation. If you have time, post again in response to what I’ve written here.



    P.S. I did my homework. Both the ACLU and the John Birch Society have opted out of 501c(3) status in order to be able to lobby on specific political issues. The ACLU has a non-profit foundation that supports its work, but that’s a legally separate entity.

  6. Ben,

    It has been my experience over the years that when someone is entrenched in their point of view, it is hard to get them to change their mind. We might have that situation here, but I will respond to the points you have presented.

    Whether or not we agree with it, the IRS has rules that govern what tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations can – and cannot – do. Houses of worship generally opt to have this tax-exempt status, but it’s not mandatory.

    Before the 2006 elections the IRS released a fact sheet to provide information to help section 501(c)(3) organizations stay in compliance with the federal tax law. Many of the types of political intervention activities addressed in the fact sheet were those that came under scrutiny during the 2004 election cycle. (To view the information go to: http://www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0,,id=154712,00.html)

    Please keep in mind these regulations apply to ALL 501(c)(3) organizations, not just to houses of worship. First Freedom First, for example, is subject to the same regulations.

    Regarding All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, it’s my understanding there is some question about whether or not the guest pastor’s actions violated the regulations. Strictly looking at the IRS fact sheet, here is what could be problematic for any group:

    Key factors in determining whether a communication results in political campaign intervention include the following:
    • Whether the statement identifies one or more candidates for a given public office;
    • Whether the statement expresses approval or disapproval for one or more candidates’ positions and/or actions;
    • Whether the statement is delivered close in time to the election;
    • Whether the statement makes reference to voting or an election;
    • Whether the issue addressed in the communication has been raised as an issue distinguishing candidates for a given office;
    • Whether the communication is part of an ongoing series of communications by the organization on the same issue that are made independent of the timing of any election; and
    • Whether the timing of the communication and identification of the candidate are related to a non-electoral event such as a scheduled vote on specific legislation by an officeholder who also happens to be a candidate for public office.

    I think what makes the guest pastor’s actions questionable is the timing. This would also apply to why, with the exception of a few weeks every other year (and only if it could be tied to a specific candidate for public office), you would not be placing your tax status in jeopardy for speaking out about the war.

    Also, keep in mind that the IRS regulations do not cover your private behavior. Even though you are a member of the clergy, you still have first amendment rights. You can take part in protest marches, speak at rallies, even get arrested in civil disobedience actions. All the IRS suggests is that if you are a recognizable figure (of a tax exempt group) you let it be known that your actions are personal and not intended to represent the views of the organization.

    All that said, I will go back to my previous comment that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. never told his followers how to vote. He educated people, and trusted they would exercise their judgment in deciding how to cast their vote.

    Regarding your second point, and keeping in mind that I’m neither an attorney or and IRS agent, I would think that a member of the clergy endorsing (or opposing) a specific candidate for public office from the pulpit could jeopardize the churches tax exempt status. Using your situation as an example I would think that should your actions be challenged by the IRS, the intricacies of your church rules would need to be sorted out in a court of law.

    You commented: “I’m not sure we want the courts deciding which principles of cannon law to establish as a standard for deciding when a house of worship has crossed the line into an official political endorsement.” On the surface it seems reasonable to think that if a pastor, speaking from the pulpit, specifically endorses (or opposes) a candidate (or political party) that comment represents the views of that house of worship. If it doesn’t, and the house of worship decides to take action, I imagine the IRS would take that into consideration when reviewing the incident.

    Regarding point number 3, I am not suggesting that the government have any role in deciding why houses of worship exist. Clearly I agree with the founder’s decision to keep church and state separate. I was merely presenting my point of view regarding houses of worship engaging in partisan political activity.

    With all due respect, I think you are missing the point in comment number 4. The East Waynesville Baptist Church pastor didn’t preach a “politically offensive” sermon. He kicked congregants out of his church. I think the congregants might have been less devastated if he had simply preached a politically offensive sermon. I think East Waynesville Baptist Church is an excellent example of the dangers inherent in turning houses of worship into partisan political machines.

    And again, with all due respect, I think it’s insulting to synagogues and black churches to think that religious leaders of either tradition would even need to warn their followers about David Duke. (Just as MCC congregations would need no warning about Fred Phelps should he ever decide to seek public office.)

    Look at the recent election campaigns of Ralph Reed, in Georgia and Roy Moore in Alabama. I’m not aware of any religious leader, from any progressive house of worship, speaking from the pulpit in opposition to these men – yet both were rejected by the voters.

    Now, back to why I originally posted a comment on your blog, I hope you will consider signing the First Freedom First petition (at http://www.firstfreedomfirst.org/). And while I have enjoyed this exchange, it’s not something I can continue indefinitely. I hope your car is running smoothly!


  7. Beth,

    Once again, thanks for the post. I cannot address every point you make, but here are my musing on a few of the things you’ve said.

    1. You start by saying, “It has been my experience over the years that when someone is entrenched in their point of view, it is hard to get them to change their mind.” I trust you are talking about yourself here. Naturally, you don’t know me well enough to pass judgment on how open or closed is my mind; unlike you, I won’t loose my job if this correspondence changes my opinions on the matter.

    2. I’m discouraged that your only response to my question about churches and synagogues in Louisiana officially opposing a David Duke candidacy is the unkind suggestion that I am being offensive. There are lots of ways in which a congregation might oppose Duke in an official way. A house of worship can call upon its members to become active in a opposing candidate’s campaign, for example, or it could give money to the opponent’s war chest. They could organize teach-ins or rallies. The possibilities are endless and un-offensive, and the question remains: would you be in favor of yanking the tax exempt status of the church or synagogue that opposes David Duke the next time he runs for office?

    3. You make a good point when you note that churches are governed by the same rules that regulate all non-profits, secular and religious. I guess it’s up to people of faith to decide when they need to forgo the financial benefits of silence, but regardless of how even handed the tax law may appear, I remain unconvinced that a church’s need to chose between conviction and tax exempt status is not government interference in religious freedom. A congregation is not the opera guild or the 4-H, and I’d like for tax law to recognize the difference (though I’m not really sure I’d want the IRS to punish the Opera Guild for opposing a city council candidate who wanted to cut funding for the arts; I have no problem if the 4-H opposes a county comissioner who favors zoning laws that destroy agricultural land, so maybe there is little difference after all).

    4. I appreciate and share your concern for the people who were kicked out of their spiritual home in East Waynesville, and I stand corrected. It was more than a sermon–the preacher had the youth group join the church en masse and then vote as a block to excommunicate the less conservative members. Clearly, that pastor should be disciplined, but I don’t like the idea that the tax code should be used to interfere in church discipline.

    5. I’ll sign the “First Freedom First” petition if I can have a line item veto. I support all of the bullet points, save the one asking for church silence, and you will find these convictions reflected in my writing, speaking and preaching. I don’t like it when divisive politics enter the church, but sometimes religion must speak out, and I value the freedom to speak freely from the pulpit.

    Thanks for asking about the car (in a personal note to Beth I mentioned that I was writing from the waiting room of my mechanic). It has a cracked exhaust manifold, but the mechanic thinks it will go for another year or so. For the most part, I formulated this post while attending the reception for a large Chinese funeral I conducted on Saturday. If you smell a little bit of shark fin soup around the edges of my webpage, that’s why.



  8. Ben,

    It is late, so I will need to make this brief. First, let me say that my comments were not meant to offend, so if you were I will apologize. In response to what you have written, let me say that:

    1) The comment was meant for both of us. Another way of putting it might be to say we might have to agree to disagree. It seems clear that you have not changed your opinion, and neither have I — and not out of fear for my job. I chose to work for Americans United because I believe in the work we do.

    2) When something is so obvious how could it not be offensive to think people would have to be “told” what to do? And that if they weren’t told, they wouldn’t think of it themselves? I give people more credit than that.

    If and when the IRS takes action on the issue of 501(c)(3) groups engaging it partisan political activity, I don’t believe the tax exempt status is permanently removed. It is my understanding that it’s taken away for the amount of time the group was in violation of the rules. So to answer your question, yes. Just as I would support the IRS investigating any tax exempt group, were they to publicly endorse or oppose a political candidate.

    3) I think you have answered this one yourself. Any 501(c)(3) organization could have a legitimate reason for wanting to engage in partisan political activity. The regulations, however, don’t permit them to do so. Do we ask everyone to abide by the same rules, or do we make exceptions for some? And if we do, who makes the exception and why?

    4) I believe the pastor decided to resign.

    5) You have a right to speak freely from the pulpit about poverty, war, or any social justice issue you care deeply about. I certainly hope that you do. We don’t offer a line item veto for the First Freedom First petition. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you.


  9. Ben:

    Just wanted to say that I appreciated this post…. If politicals are allowed to flaunt their religious affiliations for votes and to make decisions that have a direct impact on voters, if church language is to become political rhetoric in a time of war, and if pastors such as Falwell, while of course claiming to represent only themselves, nonetheless become the stand-in for a church as a whole, then there is no longer separation of church and state, and it is ridiculous on the part of state to impose laws upon church that it does not itself abide by. I would love to see First Freedom First attempt to protect separation of church and state from the other end of things…. I imagine they would have their work cut out for them.

    I am not sure if this is the sort of response you would expect from this post, but I think that it is not only idealistic but a grave mistake to attempt to “free” churches from politics….. In fact, churches need to talk about the issues of the day more than ever… just think of all of the amazing sermons of America’s history that would be lost to us if pastors could not longer engage state issues….. “Sermon on War” comes to mind.


  10. I have no argument that political discourse should go on in church. After all many people use their religious teachings to inform their values. Moreover it is pretty clear that the Romans thought Jesus was a political activist at least. Would that more of his followers embraced his politics.

    Where I get off the bus is the with the money. In this country we have decided to separate Church and State, a fact that has lead to unprecedented religious freedom here. We also offer special privileges to religion, including tax exempt status. As others have pointed out the limitation on political endorsements is tied to the tax exemption not to religious organization.

    Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s. Abandon the tax exempt status and preach freely.

    Keep up the good work.

  11. Thanks, Curtis.

    This may be the point of synthesis in all of the discussion: there may be times when churches have to forgo their tax exempt status in order to be prophetic. That’s a hard pill for most congregations to swallow, but religion sometimes requires sacrifice.

    Removing religion from the mix for just a moment, I’d be intrested to know if anyone out there knows the history around why tax law forbids non-profits from making political endorsements. Certainly houses of worship aren’t the only tax-exempt organizations with political interestes. What is the reasoning behind the law? Does anyone know?



  12. So. While I should be writing my sermon (it’s Friday, after all) instead I used Google to figure out the history of prohibiting tax exempt organizations from engaging in politics. Here’s what I found.

    The law prohibiting tax-exempt organizations from politicing was introduced by Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson in July of 1954. It seems his motivation was to silence opponants of his re-election, but I cannot help but think his cause was aided by a response to the nacent civil rights movement: Brown v. Board of Education had just been decided by the supreme court, and the influence of Black churches and organizations like the NAACP was growing.

    It is important to note that this prohibition is not rooted in constitutional wisdom of our nation’s founders, and while my research is not complete, the political ambitions of one man and the fears of White America fifty years ago, don’t seem like compelling reasons to support the prohibition against allowing 501(c)(3) to issue political opinions.

    Anyone have thoughts on this? Anyone want to correct my history?

  13. Mr. Daniel,

    Thanks for your correspondence. I wonder what it is that you feel you don’t already have? You can preach from the pulpit about any issue facing society today. You can highlight what needs to be done, in your opinion, to change things in ways that Christians would fine more acceptable. Do you really have to hold up a large sign with your candidate-of-choice’s name on it?

    I believe that’s why Beth felt it was a slight to say that black churches and synagogues would have to point out the blatantly obvious to their congregations. It doesn’t say much for churchgoers, intellectually – but perhaps that point is moot.

    Ironic that Johnson’s father was a Baptist minister, and from what I’ve read, that he inserted the tax issue into that bill because the groups he wanted to silence were opposed to his “liberal” agenda.

    I found this for you.


    Ironic, also, that if you were to have your way on this issue, conservatives such as the ones you decried above would have a field day.




    By way of disclosure, I should tell you that I am an atheist, and I believe that faith in an unsubstantiated rumor is nothing short of mental delusion on a mass scale. Its very origin is completely wrapped in the political manipulation of entire societies based on their innate fear of the unknown.

    This, however, has no bearing on my comments to you this morning about the separation of church and politics based on tax-exemption. You have to pay to play.



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