Every time I mention Pulpit Freedom Sunday, I generally get two basic objections to the concept of Pulpit Freedom. Yet these objections in some way are either misguided or just flat out wrong.
Pastors should not preach politics from the pulpit.
This is a common objection to Pulpit Freedom Sunday since we are asking pastors to evaluate the candidates running for political office in light of Scripture. Some respond by saying that pastors should not preach about politics from the pulpit.
The main problem with this objection is that the definition of what is political keeps changing. Thirty years ago, a pastor could preach a sermon from Scripture that marriage was between one man and one woman and no one would have been concerned or would have even thought to complain to the IRS that the Church was violating the Johnson Amendment in the tax code by speaking politically. Yet today, if a pastor were to stand in the pulpit and preach a sermon that says marriage is between one man and one woman, that sermon would be instantly deemed “political,” and somehow church-goers, and the culture at large, would assume that the Church was wrong and should stay out of “politics.”
Some of this is, of course, a function of the culture war over fundamental issues such as the definition of marriage, the sanctity of human life, and religious freedom. As these issues are fought in the public square, they frequently become politicized by a culture that increasingly turns to government to demand answers to these most fundamental of questions. Yet a pervasively darker consequence of these fundamental cultural conflicts is that the Church is frequently told that when culture deems an issue “political,” it somehow becomes off-limits for the Church to address without someone screaming that the Church has violated the Johnson Amendment and is endangering its tax-exempt status.
Ultimately, when people say that pastors should not preach about politics, they are making a theological argument. No one can deny that Scripture has direct application to all of life, including the realm of politics. What those who argue that pastors should stay out of “politics” really mean is that Scripture should not be specifically applied to the positions held by candidates or their parties. That is, at base, a theological argument that Pulpit Freedom Sunday is not designed to address. Rather, Pulpit Freedom Sunday is designed to answer the question of who gets to make that decision for churches. Should it be the government or each individual church? You see, when we allow the government to make that decision for churches, we are ceding control of what is God’s to “Caesar.” That is a role the government is specifically prohibited from playing. Even if people can disagree over whether a pastor should favor or oppose political candidates during a sermon, everyone should at least agree that decision should be left to the individual church and pastor to make. We set a dangerous precedent when we allow the government to choose sides and pick a winner in an ongoing theological debate. That’s not the free exercise of religion.
Pastors can favor or oppose candidates – they should just give up their tax-exempt status if they want to do so.
Some have argued the Johnson Amendment, contained in 501(c)(3) of the tax code, is a good idea because it prevents tax-exempt charitable organizations from engaging in election activity. In reality, though, there are 29 categories of organizations considered exempt from federal income taxes under section 501(c) of the tax code. Yet only organizations that fall within section 501(c)(3) are subject to the speech restriction of the Johnson Amendment. All of the other categories receive the benefit of exemption from income taxes and can endorse or oppose political candidates if they so choose. Why?
Section 501(c)(3) organizations are only subject to this restriction because Lyndon B. Johnson inserted this amendment into section 501(c)(3) in 1954 as a way of silencing two secular non-profit organizations that were opposing his reelection to the U.S. Senate. The amendment to section 501(c)(3) was not a reasoned approach to anything. It was a revenge-motivated bill by a powerful senator bent on silencing his political opponents.
Additionally, tax exemption is not a matter of legislative grace for churches. It is a constitutionally protected right. The Supreme Court stated as far back as 1819 that the power to tax involves the power to destroy and that there is no surer way to destroy the free exercise of religion than to begin to tax it.
The Johnson Amendment foists upon churches an unconstitutional choice: surrender your constitutionally protected rights to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion for a tax exemption. Clearly, though, the government is not allowed to condition tax exemption (which is something to which churches are constitutionally entitled) on the surrender of a constitutionally protected right.
To understand just how ridiculous this actually is, imagine a statute that conditioned receipt of a tax exemption on a church giving up its constitutionally protected right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure, or giving up its right against self-incrimination, or requiring a church to quarter troops in its pews if it receives a tax exemption. That would be absurd. Why then do we tolerate allowing the government to condition a tax exemption on a church giving up its precious rights protected by the First Amendment?
Pulpit Freedom Sunday is designed to protect a simple, but fundamental idea – that pastors have a right to speak freely from their pulpits and not be subject to government censorship or threat of punishment when they do so. Pulpit Freedom Sunday is simply about pulpit freedom, no more, no less. Because we do not have the free exercise of religion in any meaningful sense if the government is allowed to punish a pastor for something he says from the pulpit.
We want every pastor to sign up to participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday 2012. Go to www.pulpitfreedom.org to learn more and sign up to participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday next year which will be held the weekend of October 7, 2012.
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This post originally appeared here.