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A Few Thoughts on “Pulpit Freedom Sunday”

Notice: I did NOT say brief thoughts. I wanted to hit all of this in one sitting, so it’s long. Very, very long.

Some of you may have seen on the news leading up to this past Sunday, or in the news this week, about what is called Pulpit Freedom Sunday. I thought I would give you a little information about what that refers to and how it impacts us.

A little history is necessary to understand what is going on with all of this. First point is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Based on the First Amendment and stinging from the ways in which the British Monarchy of the time had used both force and taxation to control religious speech, the heritage in the United States became that churches and other religious bodies were exempt from taxation. After all, if one could be taxed for expressing specific opinions, that would allow control of the expression of those opinions. One must keep in mind that government restrictions are not based on preventing moderate situations. They are based on preventing the extreme situations. It is not a tax of a dollar per sermon that we fear—it is the tax of a million for a criticism of the government that must be prevented.

And you cannot allow the one in generation without the other in the next.

Now, going forward, the next stream that developed was that other groups received similar tax advantages and became the forerunners of modern non-profit organizations. These groups provided a function similar to religious groups but focused on an issue or social cause that needed addressed. Because the value to society was deemed worthwhile and the freedom need similar to religious groups, these also received the same tax advantages.

What, though, do people do if given the opportunity?

They find loopholes and exploit them. There are groups that exist strictly to address political victory, and that victory is beneficial. Remember the hullabaloo about the government’s use of Halliburton while Dick Cheney was Vice-President?How about the Solyndra loans during the present administration of President Obama? Victory is rewarding.

Since there was an opportunity to exploit the loophole for the sake of profit, people began to use it. The IRS, when formed, was given the authority to regulate who could be non-profit and thereby tax-exempt and who was not. Churches were classified non-profit, but political organizations were not.

Now, along comes the election of Lyndon Johnson to the US Senate in 1948. Searching for information online about it, suffice it to say that there are differences of opinion about whether or not everything came out of that election legitimate. Johnson was elected, though, and so had the assistance of being in the Senate when he ran in 1954.

Because of the questions regarding the previous election and the strong concerns regarding his liberal policies, many churches and pastors had been speaking against Johnson since 1948. In 1954 he offered an amendment to the Internal Revenue Code that denied tax-exempt status to any organization that endorsed specific candidates for political office.

The actual intent of this might be good, but the apparent intent was to make sure that Texas preachers (rumor has it Baptists especially) would not preach against him specifically in the coming election. The long-term effect is that technically, a church that wants to retain its exemption from paying income tax cannot endorse, for example, Doug Hibbard for President. This becomes a bigger deal when you realize that many other tax exemptions are based on the IRS’s decision: state, local, property, etc…

So we come to the recent years. First of all, there are active attempts to have tax-exemptions removed from churches. Technically, many of these would claim to be attempts to remove those exemptions from all religious groups, but the groups call themselves things like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. No mention of Separation of Mosque, Synagogue, Temple, Coven,  or anything else—so churches tend to take it personally. These groups tend to push very strongly against churches and have convinced quite a few that the ban on political speech includes anything that resembles politics: not just candidate endorsements but issue statements as well.

Second, there is a growing rift in churches about politics. Some are more readily endorsing issues that are embraced by the liberal side of American politics, and those issues are hard to see as anything other than endorsing the candidates that support those issues. There have been notable examples, Al Gore in 2000 comes to mind as does Mike Huckabee in 2008, of candidates speaking in churches but claiming they are not there for “political” purposes.

In the long-run, what this has led to is a lot of smaller churches that are not sure where they stand and a few bigger ones as well. What exactly is ok from a legal standpoint? There has been, that I have heard of, one church that has been punished by the IRS over violating the Johnson Amendment. They lost their exempt-status for one year.

Into this mix comes this question: Should this limit be the law? Why should I, as a pastor, not stand up this coming Sunday and point out that anyone who wants to slow-down the demise of the United States should vote a certain way? (If you know me, you know what I think, but I don’t want this about the specific candidate.)

Does this not violate the First Amendment? Does this not violate, more importantly, the responsibility before God to preach the truth even about politics in the place where you live?

In my opinion, it does. I do not think that the IRS has any business telling me what I can or cannot preach. That should be limited only by my understanding of my God.

Why, then, did I not join in Pulpit Freedom Sunday?

For a couple of reasons:

1. Civil disobedience is important. One should never obey laws that harm people. NEVER. Such laws should be resisted by all possible and moral means until they are overturned either by legislation, adjudication, or change of government. For example, the Fugitive Slave Act should have been resisted utterly by all Christian people in America.

However, such an action should only be taken if it is the only possible course of action. In this case, I do not think there has been a concerted effort to have Congress adjust the law. Instead the goal is to shortcut that process: get someone fined/punished so that an appeal to the Supreme Court is possible, and hope for an overturning of the law. Before we go there, we need to consider why we cannot prevail in the legislative process. Is it for lack of trying? Or because Congress is obstinately against us?

They ought to be against us—because the vast majority on both sides of the aisle have become corrupt and our pulpits ought to thunder against corruption. Not just against Democrats, but against all corruption. Even corruption that’s beneficial to us.

So, I think the effort ought to be there to change the law first. No one is truly being harmed by this law as it stands, so there is no sense in going to jail or paying the IRS and a bunch of lawyers for breaking it. When they lock you up just for stating that you think President Obama (or President Romney) is lying and harming the nation, then you have a free speech issue. That’s worth looking at the next amendment over.

2. More importantly: If I endorse Mike Huckabee for President (hah! Use the last election!) what becomes of my ministry if he loses? Or to those who vote for his opponent?

You see, I want to retain a portion of moral authority to call out whomever the President is when he violates the promises he has made. Especially about working under the Constitution. The pulpits of colonial churches helped stir the people into action against King George III, and the pulpits of America should be calling the people, including the President to repentance and righteous action.

We lose some of that if it seems like we’re just having “sour grapes” over the outcome. Now, the Johnson Amendment was birthed out of just that right action: corruption led (probably) to his election, and that corruption was being decried. That’s why it is bad law and needs to go.

Even if it goes, though, you will not likely finding me calling for a specific name during the worship service. I want to retain the ability to say that the church is for right, not for The Right.

3. Most importantly: Ministry Axiom #3 is that the mind can only absorb as much as the other end can endure. If you have limited time in a sermon, what is most important? Preaching the truth of God’s Word. That includes addressing issues that last: abortion is one of those—it remains, no matter who the candidates are. Taxation. Freedom. War. Police state tactics. Nanny state tactics. Poverty. Economics. These issues remain.

If I am going to preach on a text that addresses a political theme, is it not that I should address what God has said about the issues? These remain, even if BO/MR both sail off to Tahiti this weekend and we have to pick from two others. Discipleship teaches people to think through the Biblical issues. It does not make out a checklist to follow blindly.

4. Utmost importance: the church service is about worshiping Jesus. Proclaiming, singing, following, growing, praying, remembering.

If I make it about why you should vote for Bob, then it draws away from why you should surrender to the Lordship of King Jesus.

Which is more important? Besides, look back at point 3: a thinking disciple will vote based on the Lordship of Christ, not based on who funds Sesame Workshop. (Most of their funding comes from merchandise, by the way. You could defund PBS and Big Bird would not go broke. He just might have to go to a different network.)

Now, what should we do about the law? Is it not bad?

It is. It should be challenged in court if someone has standing, in general, to challenge it. It sounds like it is an example exercising prior restraint on speech: telling someone they can’t say something even before they say it. Perhaps someone would like to defend my sermon manuscript that I cannot preach? The one where I edited out my endorsement?

We should also request our Congressional representatives to change this law. Got that, Arkansas Delegation? Representatives Ross, Griffin, Womack, and Crawford? (Especially you, Rep. Crawford?) Senators Boozman and Pryor? Change it. It’s foolish.

Then, we as church people need to handle our own affairs on this. If the church’s money is used too much for politics you disagree with, then change your church. This is one part I have never understood, because I am in a strong free church tradition: if you feel your church is politicking or anything else in violation of God’s Word, use that door just one more time, and be gone from them.

If Christ is all, then do so, because you are not called to a Political Action Committee. You are called to obedience to Him.

No government should try to stop that, and in our hearts no government can. We cannot sit idly by and hope things remain this way, but we need to fight those battles wisely.

So, I did not endorse a political candidate Sunday. Nor did I specify that you should explicitly not vote for one, either. However, that is not because of the restraints to the First Amendment in the Johnson Amendment to the Internal Revenue Code.

It’s because the church must be about Christ more than politics.

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