Pandora’s pulpit

election creationThe collision of religion and politics always makes for a good story. Last year the IRS opened an investigation into All Saints Church, an Episcopal congregation in Pasadena, for featuring a liberal political sermon two days before the 2004 election. Bradley Whitford, former Quaker, outspoken liberal and erstwhile star of The West Wing, is a member of the church and wrote up his thoughts about the action a few months ago.

First Amendment freedoms of religion and speech buck up against the U.S. tax code, which prevents nonprofit entities from participating in partisan political activities. However liberal the sensibilities of All Saints, the offensive sermon by former rector George Regas didn’t explictily come down in favor of a particular candidate, according to the Los Angeles Times:

In his sermon, Regas, who from the pulpit opposed both the Vietnam War and 1991′s Gulf War, imagined Jesus participating in a political debate with then-candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. Regas said that “good people of profound faith” could vote for either man, and did not tell parishioners whom to support.

The idea of the Feds investigating churches makes many queasy, but in Ohio, some pastors are actually siccing the IRS on churches across the political aisle. From the Washington Post comes a report that another IRS complaint has been filed against two churches with ties to Secretary of State Ken Blackwell:

In a challenge to the ethics of conservative Ohio religious leaders and the fairness of the Internal Revenue Service, a group of 56 clergy members contends that two churches have gone too far in supporting a Republican candidate for governor.

Two complaints filed with the tax agency say that the large Columbus area churches, active in President Bush’s narrow Ohio win in 2004, violated their tax-exempt status by pushing the candidacy of J. Kenneth Blackwell, who is the secretary of state and the favored candidate of Ohio’s religious right.

I could not be more personally opposed to the blending of politics and religion. I’m an old-school Luther’s Two Kingdoms kind of person. With that blinding bias out of the way, I have to admit I was surprised by the lack of information in Peter Slevin’s report here. He mentions that 56 Ohio clergy signed the petition but fails to characterize the group as a whole. He mentions that one pastor is with the United Church of Christ — my mom’s former denomination. The UCC is neither apolitical nor leaning conservative. The other cleric mentioned is a Jewish rabbi who describes himself as centrist. Which may or may not be true — self-identification isn’t always the most reliable. Except when I tell you that I am gorgeous, funny and wise beyond my years.

Anyway, the article could have served the reader more by explaining a bit about the motivations of the clergy who are going after these conservative churches. I could be wrong, but I don’t anticipate this same group of clergy monitoring the activity of Detroit churches this fall — or taking notes for the IRS next time they attend the liberal political services at Riverside Church in New York City. In that sense, this could be a case of religious political activity on one side of the aisle being fought by religious political activity on the other.

The questions surrounding political activity and the pulpit are serious — on both sides of the aisle. And I’m not just saying that because I oppose them both. Reporters would do well to illuminate the deeper issues (mostly in American Protestantism) that result in religiously fueled political activity on liberal and conservative issues.

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  • http://GetReligion Rev. (Mr.) Jody R. Walter

    I’ll agree with the gorgeous (even with your glasses on, as you had on the last day of the LCMS convention) and wise part. I’ve not been around you enough to say about the funny. I’ll take your word for it.

    I will take issue with you to a point. I think that churches do need to take a stand on issues. I would suggest that it is important to suggest that that there is a moral dimension to tax rates, for example. How dare the government ask for more than God does! And God doesn’t even have the IRS for enforcement. Life issues, and various other moral issues do need to be addressed. No, pastors should not tell their people how to vote, but they should be helping their people think through the issues.
    Rev. (Mr.) Jody R. Walter
    Frederic, Wisconsin

  • Daniel

    It would also be interesting to know the religious and political connections of the people who turned in All Saints in Pasadena.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    self-identification isn’t always the most reliable. Except when I tell you that I am gorgeous, funny and wise beyond my years.

    I’ll have to meet you sometime! Sounds like it would be an enlightening time. :)

    Anyway, I agree with you and Luther on the “Two Kingdoms” concept. Political issues for the most part are adiaphora–neither commanded nor forbidden. When Jesus was approached with a political question, he simply said “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” St. Paul writes that the government “does not bear the sword in vain.” And remember, the government must keep the peace and maintain order and discipline in a sinful world. Moses, as political leader of the Israelites, made provisions for divorce so that the innocent would have some protection. Moses as the religious leader forbade divorce.

  • Dcn. Michael D. Harmon

    Although it wasn’t explictly drawn out in this essay, the controversy over churches being involved in political activity is a function of their tax-exempt status. There are a whole universe of stories in the desirability/undesirability of that exemption. Some hold it to be an absolute necessity under the first amendment, an unalienable right of religion to be free of state coercion. Others say it is being used to coerce churches to remain silent on moral issues. Many historically black churches seem to be exempt, as politicians of one party speak from their pulpits on political issues — often speeches supporting their campaigns, with collections taken up and presented to them — without any notice by the IRS.

    My view? Keep the exemption, and let churches speak freely. If some abuse the right, well, that doesn’t make it any less of a right, does it? Who is to say that “vote for X becasue he has the right stand on abortion” is not a moral imperative? (BTW, note I did not say what the right stand on abortion is. Not that I don’t have a view, but that it is immaterial to my point).

  • Cassie

    The list of clergy who are attacking the churches over Blackwell is not being published. Only a few have admitted to having signed the complaint filed with the IRS. According to the local NPR station who covered the story when it first broke (during Lent, IIRC) only two or three of the pastors who signed agreed to have their names publically announced. The IRS doesn’t have to make the complaint public, so the signatories can keep their anonymity.

    I’d like to know why those pastors don’t want their names, published. Perhaps “kettle” and “pot” apply here, but we don’t know, do we?

    Cassie of Ohio

  • http://benedictionblogson. Bene Diction

    I’m not from the US Cassie and I don’t think it prudent to intrude, but I’m not sure your information is complete.

    Did you do a Google search of Rev. Eric Williams?
    A Google News search, Yahoo, or Topix?

    I’ve seen a list of signees at various blogs, did you try Technorati?

    Talk2Action and Street Prophets are two blogs that come to mind that might be useful to you.
    Jumping off their blog rolls might also give you what you are saying is difficult to find.