Misusing the Pulpit for Legal and Political Ends
Prominent theologian and Baptist pastor Wayne Grudem has taken to the pages of the Christian Post to explain why he participated in the Alliance Defending Freedom’s Pulpit Freedom Sunday. The ADF has gotten 1500 pastors across the country to agree to endorse a presidential candidate this Sunday, and then send their sermons to the IRS, challenging the taxman to come after them so that they can challenge the prohibition on partisan political activity by churches and other 501(3)(c) charitable organizations. It is a profoundly misguided effort.
This action is in violation of the 1954 “Johnson Amendment” to the Internal Revenue Code, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations like churches from endorsing any candidate by name. But in our nation, a higher law than the IRS code is the Constitution, which forbids laws “abridging freedom of speech” or “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion (First Amendment).
I fully understand that many pastors might never want to endorse a candidate from the pulpit (I have never done so before and I might never do so again). But that should be the decision of the pastors and their churches, just as it was in 1860 when many pastors (rightly) decided they had to tell citizens to vote for Abraham Lincoln in order to end the horrible evil of slavery. When the government censors what pastors can preach, I think it is an unconstitutional violation of freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
Because tax regulations cannot be challenged in court unless someone is first found in violation by the IRS, it seems to me that intentionally disobeying for the purpose of bringing the issue into the court system is a way of being “subject to the governing authorities” as Rom. 13:1 tells us to do. This is the only way under our “governing authorities” that a tax law can be challenged in court for being in violation of our Constitution.
I agree with Grudem that the Johnson Amendment is unconstitutional, a blight on the First Amendment’s freedom of speech clause if not the religious liberty clause as well. If a given religious organization wishes to endorse a political candidate, they should be free to do so without suffering some kind of penalty from the state.
That being 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. In addition, you imply that God is comfortable making a choice between the “lesser of two evils” (which is always, to some extent, what politicians embody, given human sinfulness) The compromises that are a necessary evil in human politics do not reflect the way God works, and the lies and half-truths which dominate so much of political discourse in America are revolting in His sight. None of that is to say that He doesn’t use human government, leadership, and even politics to work His will, but we don’t have any special insight into what that will is regarding personalities or prudential policies, and shouldn’t offer them from the pulpit as if we did.
Be engaging in this kind of behavior we also, incidentally, implicitly 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 if they live as citizens of a democratic polity, but it has no place in the setting that is supposed to be centered on 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.
PS—Erik Stanley of the ADF writes at Townhall:
[P]astors who participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday are not engaging in a “political crusade.” Instead, they are simply applying Scripture and theological doctrine to the positions held by the candidates running for office. Pastors have been applying scriptural teaching to circumstances facing their congregations for centuries. This is not “political” speech. Rather, it’s core religious expression from a spiritual leader to his congregants. That kind of expression is at the very center of the freedom of speech and religion protections in the First Amendment.
From a legal standpoint, I would agree with him. The Johnson Amendment is an unconstitutional abridgment of churches’ and pastors’ right to free speech. But the point is that it is a legal question. As a pastor, if I felt that the state was seeking to prevent me from speaking my mind in a way that had biblical and theological integrity, I would say my peace anyway, and let the chips fall where they may—we were guaranteed persecution for our fidelity to the gospel, after all. But from the standpoint of the gospel, the endorsement of political candidates is no more a “core religious expression” than the National Council of Churches telling the federal government exactly what constitutes “just” tax rates or a “just” approach to funding levels for Head Start. I have my own opinion about whether Mitt Romney or Barack Obama would be a better president over the next four years, but I have no biblical basis for declaring one man superior to the other (especially since both take at least one position that I think is repugnant to Scripture). If the ADF wishes to challenge the Johnson Amendment, fine–find a Muslim imam, since Islam has no problem intertwining religion and state. But leave Christian pulpits out of it.
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