Politics From The Pulpit

21 04 2006

Should part of a pastor’s role involve political activism? I think so. Richard W. Garnett has written an interesting article that appeared in Sunday’s USA Today.

Religious leaders and activists have always spoken provocatively — and even prophetically — about faith’s implications for citizens, candidates, policies and elections. Not surprisingly, these reminders often prompt criticism and resistance in the pews, the news media and the public square. But we should neither demand nor expect our faith commitments or religious ministers to tell us only what we want to hear, or always to assure us that we and the status quo are doing just fine. What’s more, it should not be the place of government officials or IRS agents to impose and enforce a line between pastors’ stirring sermons and partisan stump speeches.

Jefferson’s ‘wall’

it is often suggested that politics should be checked at the doors of our houses of worship and that the demands of faith should not reach beyond the realm of our private lives. So, given our laws, traditions and democratic values, how should we think about politics in the pulpit?

For starters, and with all due respect to Jefferson, the First Amendment does not constrain — in fact, it protects — “political” preaching and faith-filled activism. Yes, our Constitution preserves a healthy separation between the institutions of religion and government. Our First Amendment protects religious freedom, individual conscience and church independence from government interference; it requires neither a faith-free public square nor politics-free sermons.

Religious faith makes claims, for better or worse, that push the believer inexorably toward charitable and conscientious engagement in “public life.”

Government’s reach

True, there is the matter of the tax laws. Churches have, for centuries, for the most part been immune from taxes imposed by secular authority. Accordingly, the United States has long exempted corporations organized and operated exclusively for religious purposes from federal taxation. This exemption, however, comes at a price: Like other tax-exempt charitable organizations, religious communities may not engage in activities and expression that are regarded by government as excessively political (or, perhaps, as insufficiently religious).

It is the regulation of the churches’ expression, and not their expression itself, that should raise constitutional red flags. Religious institutions are not above the law, but a government that respects the separation of church and state should be extremely wary of telling churches and religious believers whether they are being appropriately “religious” or excessively “political” or partisan. Churches and congregants, not bureaucrats and courts, must define the perimeter of religion’s challenges. It should not be for the state to label as electioneering, endorsement, or lobbying what a religious community considers evangelism, worship or witness.

Reasonable people with shared religious commitments still can disagree about many, even most, policy and political matters. A hasty endorsement, or a clumsy or uncharitable political charge, has no place in a house of worship or during a time of prayer — not because religion does not speak to politics, but because it is about more, and is more important, than politics.

I always hold my breath when reading anyone I am unfamiliar with that plays a “Jefferson’s Wall” card. He had little to no influence on the First Amendment and because of a committee, we ended up with the wording we have today.

The one phrase in the Jefferson paragraph that many might misread is this: “Yes, our Constitution preserves a healthy separation between the institutions of religion and government.” The original intent of the First Amendment was to protect citizens from being forced to worship a certain way. I understand that when Garnett says “institutions” he is including citizens, but I would word that differently in order to stress the true intent.

The ACLU and other moonbat groups and individuals have scared the dookie out of too many pastors and church members into believing that they cannot mention a candidate, hold voter registrations, or pass out issues sheets.

I am a part of a group called Awaken America that seeks to educate clergy on where their limits are from an pastor’s role and a private citizen’s role. Fortunately, in this country, pastor’s can preach that a highly-charged political issue such as homosexuality (moral issue, truthfully) is wrong and why. But in Canada a pastor cannot preach Romans 1 and say it’s wrong. It’s against the law. We cannot allow our country to go that far down the road of Secular Humanism.

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