Against "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" (Unless Churches Pay Their Taxes First!)

The New York Times reports that,

This weekend, hundreds of pastors, including some of the nation’s evangelical leaders, will climb into their pulpits to preach about American politics, flouting a decades-old law that prohibits tax-exempt churches and other charities from campaigning on election issues. The sermons, on what is called Pulpit Freedom Sunday, essentially represent a form of biblical bait, an effort by some churches to goad the Internal Revenue Service into court battles over the divide between religion and politics.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a nonprofit legal defense group whose founders include James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, sponsors the annual event, which started with 33 pastors in 2008. This year, Glenn Beck has been promoting it, calling for 1,000 religious leaders to sign on and generating additional interest at the beginning of a presidential election cycle.

“There should be no government intrusion in the pulpit,” said the Rev. James Garlow, senior pastor at Skyline Church in La Mesa, Calif., who led preachers in the battle to pass California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. “The freedom of speech and the freedom of religion promised under the First Amendment means pastors have full authority to say what they want to say…. Pastors have been bullied and intimidated enough.”

The so-called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” seems to be a case of demagoguery: “a strategy for gaining political power by appealing to the prejudices, emotions, fears, vanities and expectations of the public — typically via impassioned rhetoric and propaganda, and often using nationalist, populist or religious themes.” As the saying goes, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.”

In other words, there are some on the Religious Right who desire to establish the United States as an exclusively Christian Nation in opposition to the vibrant religious pluralism that has emerged in the wake our Constitutionally-guaranteed religious freedom. The Washington Post has written that, “Dominionism is defined as the tendency of politically active conservative Christians to try to control government. Writer Michelle Goldberg simplifies the definition down to: ‘a movement…which says Christians should rule the world.’”

Pulpit Freedom Sunday seems like a dangerous farce to me: a situation of fake outrage meant to cynically galvanize political power. When pastors such as The Rev. James Garlow say that, “The freedom of speech and the freedom of religion promised under the First Amendment means pastors have full authority to say what they want to say” and that, “Pastors have been bullied and intimidated enough,” they conspicuously fail to mention two important facts.

First, far from being “bullied and intimidated” by the government, all members of the clergy benefit from government-sponsored tax breaks. Perhaps myself and other members of the clergy should relinquish their benefits. I have recently blogged to this effect in a post titled, “Atheists May Have a Point on Clergy Tax Breaks.”

Second, pastors are welcome to assert their first-amendment right to freedom of speech to endorse political candidates (or whomever or whatever else) from the pulpit. But, first, these members of the clergy and their currently tax-exempt churches should send a large check to the U.S. Treasury, because the IRS should revoke their tax-exempt status. Claiming persecution from the government while simultaneously benefiting from government-sponsored tax breaks is crying wolf, the height of hypocrisy, and behavior that should be expected from a petulant child, not a religious leader. Moreover, the conflict between the First Amendment and the law against campaigning from the pulpit is perhaps precisely why all tax-breaks for clergy and religious organizations should be repealed — thereby curtailing one avenue for the state to silence the prophetic voice of the church and other religious groups.

Yes, funding religious groups could become more difficult if congregants could not submit their offering plate donations as tax deductible, but perhaps such a sacrifice would reveal whether the true loyalties of congregants are to their bank account or to God.  As Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24/Luke 16:13). Jesus’ most authentic teachings are some of the hardest to hear, much less to follow. Remember that Jesus was sentenced to death at the hands of the Roman state when he became threat to the Roman powers that be. Thus, my ingrained tendency is to side with the separation of church and state. When Christians speak, we shouldn’t have to worry about whether we are biting the hand that feeds us because we shouldn’t be fed from Caesar/Uncle Sam in the first place.

The Rev. Carl Gregg is the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

About Carl Gregg

The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @carlgregg.