Political lectures from the pulpit

Posted: November 2, 2012

Pulpit politicking raises the question of ethics

In 2009, the International Revenue Service investigated James Hammond, pastor of the Living Word Christian Center (a Brooklyn Park church), for directly endorsing congresswoman Michele Bachmann, which is a violation of the 1954 Johnson Amendment regarding churches with tax-exempt statuses.

The court ultimately dismissed the petition, but it did locally publicize the debate regarding pulpit politicking (which references church officials like priests, pastors and rabbis publicly endorsing a certain political candidate from the pulpit). The case also raised the question of whether or not pulpit politicking is right.

The Talon thinks not.

The First Amendment appears in the United States Bill of Rights as “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.”

The Amendment protects the freedom of speech and religion, but a time comes when the line regarding whether or not this protection is ethical in all circumstances remains unclear. But in what circumstances would free speech ever be stripped away?

Priests, pastors, rabbis, Supreme Court justices and IRS officials are debating this following Pulpit Freedom Sunday, an organized motion of pulpit politicking sponsored by the Alliance Defending Freedom.

Oct. 7 marked Pulpit Freedom Sunday where more than 1,000 church officials nationwide chose to endorse political candidates before their congregations, directly conflicting with a current International Revenue Service law, the 1954 Johnson Amendment.

The Johnson Amendment prohibits churches with a tax-exempt status from intervening in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office,” although they can take a stand regarding specific issues such as abortion or gay marriage.

Twenty eight types of nonprofit organizations are exempt from federal taxes, including churches (see section 501(c)(3) of IRS Publication 557).

However, if churches violate the Johnson Amendment their rights to this status will be revoked and they will be forced to pay taxes like a business.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a major proponent of Pulpit Freedom Sunday, said the Johnson Amendment violates the First Amendment by silencing preachers.

In response to this so-called denial of justice, preachers voiced their political views from the pulpit on Oct. 7. But make no mistake; these churches actually hope the IRS will take action against them like they have threatened. If the IRS carries out their threat, the churches being reported will have the chance to take the cases to the Supreme Court, where they hope the Johnson Amendment will be deemed unconstitutional and be overturned.

Though everyone has a right to their opinion, is it appropriate for persons in positions of authority to publicly endorse political candidates when their audience has no choice but to listen?

We at the Talon feel that preachers endorsing candidates from the pulpit are abusing power and violating basic ethics. The reasons parallel why teachers hesitate discussing their political thoughts with their students; young people are impressionable and need to develop the skills to critically consider issues and form their own opinions, not be influenced by authoritative figures they’re forced to listen to in a classroom setting.

The same goes for preachers; people attend church for religious guidance, not a political lecture. If a pastor or teacher chooses to share his or her views regarding a particular candidate in a private and personal setting when explicitly asked, that’s their choice, but it should certainly not be in a public situation when in a position of authority.

The First Amendment advocates for the separation of church and state.

Measures are being taken to ensure that the state is being kept out of church affairs, but let’s make the same effort to keep the church away from state affairs.

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