Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Preaching Partisan Politics from the Pulpit?

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.

6 comments:

goodwolve said...

I hear you, but because as UU's we do what is right we are losing the game. Our principals are fantastic, but the other team doesn't play by the same rules and it drives me crazy.

So, don't say anything from the pulpit, but know that the church down the street is and their fellowship is listening and voting.

How can we ever win against that?

Bill Baar said...

You can thank LBJ for it per OMB watch,

Religious, charitable, educational and scientific organizations have been tax-exempt since 1913, although no political activity parameters were included in the first exemption statues. In 1954, however, Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson (D-TX) added the "express prohibition" on political campaign activity—without the benefit of hearings, testimony, or comment from affected organizations during Senate floor debate on the Internal Revenue Code. The amendment prohibits 501(c)(3) organizations from "participat[ing] in, or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office." The law was eventually applied to churches and now includes all 501(c)(3) organizations.

The genesis of Johnson's desire to reduce 501(c)(3) participation in elections reportedly stems from the great effect nonprofits had in campaigning against him, "by producing Red-baiting radio shows, television programs and millions of pieces of literature”; however, committee records demonstrate a general congressional mood towards increased regulation of nonprofit speech.


I think it really boils down to how important is it to your congregation to get the tax deduction for their pledges vs hearing your political views at Church.

It's probably cheaper for a congregant to buy you a Starbucks instead, otherwise; give up that deduction and you can Preach Politics as much as your Church can stand.

beeveedee said...

I think this is largely right. (I say largely only because I haven't thought through all the details.) It seems to me that the reasons to not get into partisan politics from the pulpit are not moral ones, but pragmatic ones.

That said, to everything there is a season. If a candidate's election presents a clear enough danger to the safety and liberty of others -- in other words, if the moral case outweighs the pragmatic one -- then I think partisan politics can be called for. We'd be pretty stupid, I think, to condemn Dietrich Bonhoeffer for his involvement in "partisan politics."

Unitalian said...

"Don't say anything from the pulpit, but know that the church down the street is and their fellowship is listening and voting."

I think this strikes about what is at the heart of what is wrong about preaching politics from the pulpit. There's an assumption here that the "other team" is of the right, and "our team" is of the left, which certainly seems plain enough from the Obama-mania evident on some UU websites.

Yet "give unto Caesar what is Caesar's, give unto me what is mine" expresses more than separation of church and state - it's the separation between Man and God.

On the surface, parties of the left with their agenda around equal rights and the low-paid seem the natural UU choice. Yet, as my grandmother used to say, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

In the UK for example, in MY opinion, the welfare program has resulted in generations of working class people losing their will to succeed and promoted a culture of dependency which is in no one's interest except the middle-and-upper classes . Yet welfare reform is promoted only by the right.

Again, Margaret Thatcher was (and still is) loathed by the left, but she transformed the opportunities of the working class and was the key force behind the declining power of Class in Britain.

On the other hand, only this week, we have the president of the UUA cosying up to a fascist despot responsible for countless crimes against his own people, and comparing him favorably with the elected President of the United States!

This is not to say UU should stay out of politics - but it should recognize the complexities and be very careful to cast judgement. Slavery for example = bad. But honestly, there are few discernible differences between the Democrats and Republicans from this side of the pond.

UU values should avoid easy, earth-bound judgements. Ministers who seek to make them should depart the pulpit and seek elected office.

Unitalian said...

"Don't say anything from the pulpit, but know that the church down the street is and their fellowship is listening and voting."

I think this strikes about what is at the heart of what is wrong about preaching politics from the pulpit. There's an assumption here that the "other team" is of the right, and "our team" is of the left, which certainly seems plain enough from the Obama-mania evident on some UU websites.

Yet "give unto Caesar what is Caesar's, give unto me what is mine" expresses more than separation of church and state - it's the separation between Man and God.

On the surface, parties of the left with their agenda around equal rights and the low-paid seem the natural UU choice. Yet, as my grandmother used to say, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

In the UK for example, in MY opinion, the welfare program has resulted in generations of working class people losing their will to succeed and promoted a culture of dependency which is in no one's interest except the middle-and-upper classes . Yet welfare reform is promoted only by the right.

Again, Margaret Thatcher was (and still is) loathed by the left, but she transformed the opportunities of the working class and was the key force behind the declining power of Class in Britain.

On the other hand, only this week, we have the president of the UUA cosying up to a fascist despot responsible for countless crimes against his own people, and comparing him favorably with the elected President of the United States!

This is not to say UU should stay out of politics - but it should recognize the complexities and be very careful to cast judgement. Slavery for example = bad. But honestly, there are few discernible differences between the Democrats and Republicans from this side of the pond.

UU values should avoid easy, earth-bound judgements. Ministers who seek to make them should depart the pulpit and seek elected office.

Cynthia Landrum said...

There's an assumption here that the "other team" is of the right, and "our team" is of the left, which certainly seems plain enough from the Obama-mania evident on some UU websites.

Yes, I think there's definitely an assumption by many folks that UU=democrat. I currently serve a church, however, that has a larger republican percentage than I've seen in any other UU church I've been in. We're a rural, historically Universalist church, with a larger percentage working class than other UU churches I've been in, with more members without college degrees. Basically, along class, education, and political party, we're more diverse than any other UU church I've been in. And I think that's great. I love that mix. And I want to keep it that way. That's why, while I will talk about ethical issues and moral issues inside the church, I keep the partisan stuff outside of the church, at least for now. I think absolutely we have the right to preach on it, and in other churches it may be a better fit with who they are to do so, so I don't, by any means, condemn those who make a different decision than I make. This is just what is right for me and my church, as I see it.