This past Sunday, a group of 33 pastors preached a partisan message, endorsing a presidential candidate, from their pulpits in defiance of the tax code, which forbids such practice, the penalty for which is loss of tax-exempt status for the church.
Here's what I think.
The reason the average person gives for why this prohibition should be in place is "separation of church and state." However, this is a misunderstanding of what "separation of church and state" means. People often think that our country is founded on the idea that church and state are two totally separate things, therefore the state should say nothing about churches, and vice versa. In fact, what separation of church and state, as I understand it, is about is two-fold: First, there should be no state-sanctioned religion. The state should not endorse, promote, or show preference to any religion. Second, this is about freedom of religion. All religions should be free to practice as they see fit. Neither of these prohibit a religious organization from making statements about the state.
Which brings me to the second issue: freedom of the pulpit. Our church, indeed our whole religion, believes in freedom of the pulpit. My own letter of agreement with the congregation states, "It is a basic premise of this Congregation that the pulpit is free and untrammeled. We want a 'strong pulpit' that confirms UUA principles, embraces the Congregation’s Universalist heritage and reflects the variety of world’s religious traditions. The Minister is expected to express her values, views, and commitments without fear or favor." Similarly, our by-laws state: "The Minister shall have complete freedom of the pulpit, as well as freedom to express personal opinions outside the pulpit. This means that all those who speak from the pulpit have the right - and the duty - to express their true thoughts and feelings about the topics on which they speak. They have the freedom to choose topics that may be controversial. Their words are their own and should not be construed as the voice of the Congregation nor the voice of the UUA."
As I read it, "complete freedom of the pulpit" is absolute. I have the right, according to our congregation's beliefs, to speak about anything from the pulpit, and that includes partisan politics, if I choose to.
It's rare that I side with a group of evangelical ministers, but in this case I believe they're right. The tax code rule stifles freedom of the pulpit and is a violation of our right to freedom of religion.
Of course, whether or not we have the right to tax-exempt status is another question. And if the American people decided churches shouldn't be tax-exempt, I would have a hard time arguing that we should be special in this way. Separation of church and state means the state shouldn't support us, it doesn't mean that we shouldn't support the state. And we use the police and fire protection that those tax dollars go to.
So, I believe I should (and do, according to our church) have the right to preach partisan politics from the pulpit if I believe it's the right thing to do.
At this point, however, I don't believe it would be the right thing to do in our church or for our church, however, and that's where I break from these evangelical ministers. We are a church made strong by our diversity, and when I get partisan that can threaten our diversity. There are issues we take religious stands on, and those issues may lead us more to one candidate than the other, but that doesn't mean that someone can't be UU and a member of either party.
So, for now, if you want to know who I'm voting for, ask me outside of church. Or, for that matter, look at the back of my car or my front lawn. I am a person with strong political opinions, and I show them. But for now, our pulpit will remain silent on this issue.