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.