Who Would Jesus Endorse—Pulpit Freedom Sunday

September 24, 2012

On October 7, 2012, hundreds of clergy will intentionally defy the law by engaging in actions they might describe as coordinated civil disobedience. I view it as an unjustifiable defiance of the law and a constitutionally unsound attempt to get the government to subsidize political endorsements by clergy.

As tax-exempt organizations, churches (temples, mosques, etc.) are forbidden from endorsing or opposing candidates for office. The same prohibition applies to all 501 (c)(3) (charitable, nonprofit) organizations, including CFI.  This has been the case since Congress enacted this restriction in 1954. The principal rationale for this prohibition is that 501(c)(3) organizations are indirectly subsidized by the government under our tax code.  Contributions to such organizations may be deducted from one’s income, resulting in a lower tax being paid by the person who made the charitable contribution, and therefore, less revenue for the government.  Such indirect subsidies are arguably justifiable on the ground that charitable organizations serve the public good. 

But in recent years, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an organization providing legal services to churches and individuals who want greater “religious freedom,” has promoted open defiance of the governing law, encouraging clergy to take to the pulpit on a designated Sunday and expressly endorse political candidates.  ADF candidly admits that one reason it promotes this event is that it is hoping that the IRS will take action against at least one church, revoking its tax exemption, which will then provide the basis for a constitutional challenge to the current law. 

In promoting its Pulpit Freedom Sunday, ADF disingenuously argues that for nearly 200 years (1789-1954), clergy were free to endorse candidates and they often did so.  This is true.  For example, there were many antebellum clergy who embraced slavery and angrily denounced candidates such as Abraham Lincoln. However, ADF ignores the fact that tax deductions for charitable organizations did not begin until the Revenue Act of 1917.  Thus, clergy were only able to receive government subsidies while endorsing candidates for about 37 years, until the government recognized this was bad public policy. 

And it is bad public policy to allow clergy to make political endorsements.  Religion has too much influence on politics as it is without turning the churches into government-subsidized campaign venues.  Political partisanship is already very intense; yet the ADF now wants clergy to be able to demonize candidates from the pulpits? 

The argument that current law restricts religious freedom is, of course, pure poppycock.  There is no abridgment of religious freedom because there is no compulsion to accept tax-exempt status.  Any minister is perfectly free to say whatever s/he wants about any political candidate —provided the church first relinquishes its tax-exempt status.  But the money-hungry pastors won’t do that, of course, because it is not religious freedom they are after.  It is the freedom to conduct partisan political campaigns from the pulpit while receiving a government subsidy. 

Pulpit Freedom Sunday is Subsidized Theocracy Sunday. 

Finally, I note that if clergy are to give campaign speeches on October 7, I think that anyone who wanted to attend these campaign rallies should be free to engage in that great American tradition of heckling. If clergy want to invoke hellfire to support some candidate, I hope someone in the audience has the courage to give ‘em hell right back. Hecklers will not be interfering with a worship service; they’ll just be interrupting a speech by a political hack.