Preachers and politics: Be careful out there folks …

Today’s digest from the Religion News Service (sign up for this very helpful service, if you have not already done so) points readers toward a very important story in the wake of this year’s White House race. Come to think of it, this story has been highly relevant in every single national election year since, oh, 1973. Here is the short RNS blurb for this story:

Church-state and atheist groups have long complained about churches endorsing candidates; now they’re going to court in a bid to force the IRS to do something about it.

The key word in that statement? The answer is “candidates.”

Thus, the actual RNS news report, as it should, provides the following crucial information:

IRS rules state that organizations classified as 501 (c) (3) non-profits — a tax-exempt status most churches and other religious institutions claim — cannot participate or intervene in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any political candidate.” …

IRS rules do allow for some nonpartisan activity by religious institutions, including organizing members to vote and speaking out on issues. But endorsing or supporting specific candidates could jeopardize their tax-exempt status.

Thus, it is acceptable for religious organizations to discuss the specific doctrinal stands taken by their faith and then to apply them to specific issues in the public square. It’s fine for African-American congregations to tell members that the God of Holy Scripture demands that his people fight to defend the poor and the weak. It’s fine for Catholic bishops to tell their flocks that, for those in sacramental relationships with ancient churches, it is a sin to support the killing of unborn children and the unnatural deaths of the elderly.

But this is where things get interesting, in light of the new lawsuits by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and others. Thus, the RNS report notes:

The lawsuit … challenges the legality of several full-page newspaper advertisements paid for by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, another 501 (c) (3), that exhorted voters to vote along “biblical principles.”

Other complaints include:

– Roman Catholic Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, Wis., who wrote an appeal on diocesan letterhead inserted in parish bulletins warning voters that they could “put their own soul in jeopardy” if they voted for a party or candidate that supports same-sex marriage or abortion rights.

– Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., who criticized President Obama in a homily and then exhorted parishioners that “every practicing Catholic must vote, and must vote their Catholic consciences.”

– Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino, who, in an article appearing in the local diocesan newspaper, wrote of “non-negotiable” political issues, and that “No Catholic may, in good conscience, vote for ‘pro-choice’ candidates (or) … for candidates who promote ‘same-sex marriage.’ ”

Now, that second Catholic case — the Jenky case — is interesting. One must assume that it would also be illegal for pastors in African-Americans to praise Obama and then to urge the faithful to vote according to their consciences.

In light of surveys from the Pew Research Center, it does appear that journalists need to be probing these issues on both sides of church aisles. We know that it is illegal for churches to endorse specific candidates by name, which, for example, the Graham advertisements did not do. We also know that it is legal for churches to preach on specific issues, to relate them to church teachings, and then to remind their members what actions their churches consider sinful and what actions they consider to be faithful to scripture and tradition (whether we are talking about the environment, the death penalty, health care, abortion, gay rights or whatever).

This chunk of the Pew report is long, but essential reading:

While many regular churchgoers say they have been encouraged to vote by their clergy, relatively few say church leaders are discussing the candidates directly or favoring one candidate over the other. Black Protestants are far more likely than white Protestants or Catholics to say they are hearing about the candidates and the importance of voting, and the messages they are hearing overwhelmingly favor Barack Obama.

Among those who attend religious services at least once or twice a month, about half (52%) say their clergy have spoken out about the importance of voting over the past few months. Just one-in-five (19%) say their clergy have spoken about the candidates themselves, according to the survey, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Nearly eight-in-ten (79%) black Protestant churchgoers say their clergy have spoken out about the importance of voting, compared with about half of white evangelical Protestant (52%) and white Catholic (46%) churchgoers. Only about a third (32%) of white mainline Protestants who attend services say their clergy have discussed the importance of voting.

Black Protestants are twice as likely as churchgoers overall to be hearing about the candidates at church. Among regular churchgoers, four-in-ten (40%) black Protestants say their clergy have spoken directly about the candidates, compared with 17% of white Catholics, 12% of white evangelicals and just 5% of white mainline Protestants.

Most regular churchgoers say the messages they are hearing in church are neutral when it comes to the 2012 election — whether or not they mention the candidates directly. Only about three-in-ten say what they are hearing at church is more supportive of one candidate or the other. Among those who feel their clergy’s messages favor a candidate, roughly equal numbers say the messages support Obama (15%) as Romney (14%).

What people are hearing varies greatly by race. Nearly half (45%) of black Protestant churchgoers say the messages they hear at church favor a candidate, and every one of those says the message favors Obama. Fewer white churchgoers say they are hearing things that favor a candidate, but among those who are, the messages are far more favorable to Romney than Obama. In particular, white evangelical churchgoers say their clergy have tended to be more supportive of Romney (26%) than Obama (5%). Among white Catholic churchgoers, 21% say their clergy’s messages have been more supportive of Romney, compared with 4% who say the messages have been more supportive of Obama.

What, precisely, does it mean to say that sermons “favor a candidate” or that they are “more” supportive of one candidate or another?

This is where journalists must be very, very precise about the actual language that preachers are using. Is it illegal for a black pastor to urge church members to vote for the candidate who will best understand the concerns of African-Americans, in a race involving a black candidate? Is it illegal for a Catholic priest to remind parishioners that abortion is intrinsically evil in a race in which one candidate has a muddled record on sanctity of life issues and the other has one of the most faithfully pro-abortion-rights records possible in American politics? It’s easy to do similar equations when dealing with other cultural, moral and political issues that, beyond all doubt, are linked to centuries of doctrine.

Journalists must remember that activists on both sides — left and right — are wrestling with these issues. Be careful out there, because God is in the details and the same is true of the First Amendment.

Stay tuned.


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