Is it too much to ask that Evangelical clergy make up their minds whether they want to use their churches as places of worship or as partisan platforms? Apparently the Christian Right thinks so. Lawyers for the Alliance Defense Fund are fishing for clients willing to serve as “victims” of Section 504 of the Internal Revenue Code, which deprives churches or any other non-profit organization of their tax-exempt status if their clergy endorse political candidates from the pulpit. They are struggling to recruit clergy willing to violate the tax law to provide a vehicle for constitutional challenges in the Federal courts.
While Alliance Defense Fund lawyers will probably have to take what they can get, the perfect sacrifice is not a pastor who asks the congregation to give a round of applause for their favored candidate or who passes the collection plate again for the candidate’s campaign. What they want are pastors who use their sermons to couch their endorsements in terms of candidate positions on social issues. That’s because the facts of the case matter not only for the case they hope to take into Federal court but also because they fear alerting the more discerning among the faithful that winning this one could result in crude politicking from the pulpit. They would rather elicit righteous indignation than the gagging reflex.
Should this dispute matter to the non-Evangelical majority of Americans? After all, religion already suffuses American politics. Evangelical candidates shamelessly tout their memberships in the denominations with the largest memberships and in the churches with the largest congregations in their districts. Evangelical church members are already prey to Christian Right activists. Evangelical pastors have numerous opportunities to argue their politics outside of church sanctuaries, especially on multiple religious cable television channels. Evangelical televangelists feel so safe from public criticism that they regularly substitute Christian Protestant nationalism for American patriotism in their sermonizing. The result of all this is that many Evangelical churches are as hopelessly compromised as mosques in the Middle East and Western Europe dominated by radical Islamists. So why should the rest of us worry if Evangelical pastors take the next step by making explicit partisan candidate endorsements from the pulpit?
Part of the answer is that the rest of us are affected by their privileged position. Religious bodies are able to support their clergy, often rather lavishly, if they are televangelists and/or control a mega-church, because they enjoy tax-exempt status. Tax-deductible contributions that might otherwise go to support institutions with genuine general social utility—such as schools, hospitals and charities—are instead given to churches. Permitting Evangelical churches to operate as conservative political clubs or informal branches of the Republican Party while at the same time collecting tax-exempt contributions would effectively subsidize their political speech. Secular political lobbies and non-confessional political parties would not enjoy that same advantage. That is not fair.
The other part of the answer is that the political autonomy of some of our fellow citizens would be compromised. Voting decisions in a healthy liberal democracy ought to be free of bribery, intimidation or undue influence. That is why Americans adopted the secret (or Australian ballot) in the late 19th century. The problem is that some religious believers invest their clergy with unquestioning trust, and some clergy are more than willing to abuse that trust for ideological and partisan ends. Christian Right clergy already reduce complex social issues to choices between “good” and “evil” in their sermons. Is it wise to give them license to reduce the voting decision itself to the same primitive level? Permitting clergy to explicitly instruct congregants on their voting decisions during church services is a fundamental assault on the political autonomy of our fellow citizens. What is next? Should clergy be allowed to monitor them while they are in the voting booth?
That this civil liberties question is patently artificial is indicated by the absence of widespread outrage on the part of American clergy. The National Council of Churches’ 2007 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches reports there are more than 350,000 Christian clergy with churches in America. Almost 100,000 of that total are affiliated with the stridently Evangelical Southern Baptist Convention. If this grievance were real, the Alliance Defense Fund lawyers would not have had trouble drumming up business for this constitutional challenge. The truth is that clergy are already free to make partisan candidate endorsements from the pulpit. All they need to do is sacrifice their church’s juicy tax-exempt status. If politics is their true calling, let them answer it.
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Baltimore News Network, Inc., sponsor of this web site, is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed in stories posted on this web site are the authors' own.This story was published on September 13, 2008.