Why Pulpit Freedom Sunday is a Really Terrible Idea

This Sunday morning hundreds of pastors will participate in what is being called, “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” The program is the creation of a conservative political action group called the Alliance Defending Freedom, formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund (you can read a little bit about them here). The agenda behind Pulpit Freedom Sunday is to entice pastors to openly endorse a presidential candidate from their pulpit during a Sunday morning worship service, then to send evidence of the endorsement to the IRS, hoping that the IRS will bring a case against the church to revoke their non-profit status.

First let me say that I think there are some legitimate questions at work here: 1) non-profit status for religious organizations and 2) the relationship between religion and politics, and most importantly 3) how pastors can help their congregations to have a helpful conversation about politics in an election year. The third one is, by the way, part of why I wrote the book Public Jesus. However, none of those things are worth dragging a congregation into a bitterly divided election year squabble by publicly declaring advocacy for a specific party or candidate in the middle of a worship service.

I think Pulpit Freedom Sunday is a really bad idea. For one thing, it’s a rude intrusion of Pharaoh’s government into the sacred space of the worship of the one true God. For a second thing, it’s really not about freedom of religion. Pulpit Freedom Sunday grows out of the unholy marriage between the political right and American evangelicals. You need to look no further than the title sponsor (ADF), for that to be made clear.

Yet, none of those are the main reason I object. The main reason I object is that this is not what churches should be about.

If I stood up and endorsed a candidate in my church during a sermon, it would cause terrible division, would make those who disagree feel unwelcome, and leave us all more confused and divided than when we came. It’s called sewing the seeds of discord and it is not what worship should be about. The pastor’s job is not to prop up some politician, nor is it to encourage their congregations to put their trust in any political candidate or party.

I’m all for pastors having political convictions. But, there has to be a better outlet than the pulpit on Sunday morning for those convictions to be expressed. Doing so is an abuse of what we are there to do. The propaganda supporting Pulpit Freedom Sunday cites the history of pastors who used to pulpit during the abolitionist movement and civil rights. But this is a fundamentally different situation. Pulpit Freedom Sunday isn’t pastors protesting injustice, but pastors stumping for political candidates. Pastors should not be placing trust in politicians and we shouldn’t drag our church into the political blood-sport by endorsing a candidate from the pulpit.

I sometimes write about politics for The Huffington Post, Sojourners, and here at Paperback Theology, and I feel conflicted about it every single time (including right now). Writing on politics has taught me how vulnerable pastors are on this issue. I try to write about it in a way that transcends party politics, but my beliefs come through and I know that. My deepest political conviction is that Christianity is itself a politic (an organizing narrative), that is altogether separate from Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or any other kind of politics in America. Although talking about politics is one of the things I do on this blog, I try not to endorse any single candidate and hope to poke all sides with a stick when appropriate. But, even a blog that has no connection to my church feels really vulnerable to me, and that is why I won’t be making an all-out endorsement of any candidate this year, and I certainly won’t be preaching in support of a candidate this Sunday Morning.

So here’s my advice for Pulpit Freedom Sunday:

Pastors: let this idea fly by and call it what it is, a trap that will only further divide the body of Christ. It should be called Pulpit Slavery Sunday, as the pastors who participate make themselves slaves to the empire the moment they endorse a candidate for Pharaoh.

IRS: ignore the tapes and don’t swing at a pitch in the dirt.

Congregations: If you pastor endorses a candidate this Sunday, I’d love to tell you to stand up and fire back, to challenge them in front of the congregation, but that would only exacerbate the huge mistake they’ve already made. If your pastor does this, you’ve been put in a terrible position. Don’t leave. Don’t fight. Don’t make a huge deal out of it. All you can really do is to pray for them and bear their sin. Seek a time to speak with them privately and express your disappointment with their decision, but don’t stoop to their level and create a scene. If they won’t relent after a private audience, take a like-minded brother or sister along and try it again. If they still won’t see reason, then seek the counsel of your church leadership (elders/deacons).

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  • Well-blogged, sir. Well-called.
    Now how can I get Patheos to stop launching these incessant popup ads every time I click anything, anywhere on their site…

  • Tim Suttle

    lol – gotta pay the bills somehow! It should only happen once per visit!

  • Not to mention that this Sunday is also World Communion Sunday – so endorsing a candidate would be causing division on the one Sunday designated for worldwide unity in the body of Christ.

  • Alex

    It could also be a particularly bad idea in this election cycle because of which candidate many typical pastors may endorse.
    Mitt Romney is a Mormon. He believes not in the Triune God, Creator of All Things, the Son-person of Whom died as sole Redemptor of our souls and the Spirit-person of Whom dwells in our hearts continuing the work of sanctification–but in a “Heavenly Father” who is a physical man, who had physical relations with the Virgin Mary, and who became the god of a faraway planet, according to a process male Mormons (such as Romney himself) can follow as well. The depth of this blasphemy is profound, and many true Christians are in danger of partaking in it by accepting Romney as their president this November–simply out of ignorance. They are ignorant of the evil doctrines of Mormonism, and they are ignorant of the fact that in supporting Romney as a candidate they tacitly accept his faith as a suitable religious representative of our nation. They are ignorant of the outrage of his mere candidacy, so much so that they will not only accept but herald his presidency, should it come about.
    Thus the chance that pastors may not seize a vital opportunity to educate their flocks in political matters, and help them avoid a heinous slander of the Most High God, but rather turn in the opposite direction and support an evil heretic, is tragedy, piled on outrage, piled on shame.

    • Norm Robinson

      My. I came here thinking that so-called “progressive” Christians would be most likely to shoot the moon at their God, and was pleasantly surprise to see your post. It is not that I accept it without reservation, but that I enjoyed its consistency. Kudos to you.

      I grew up in the Christian church. So I know all the nonsense that exists there. Today I am an atheist, and I must say that I think Christian stupidity is getting even worse!

      Too many alleged Christians claim that that the only thing that matters is preaching the “gospel,” and that Christians should not mix politics with the church because the church is too sacred. Why are Christians so willing to truncate the freedom of the church? If a pastor’s endorsement of a candidate punctures the wall of separation between church and state, then why does it not puncture the wall when a pastor comments on anything concerning the state? If mere speech on a candidate destroys separation of church and state, then pastors ought not be able to comment on any law, or even any proposed law of the state. The current and predominant Christian position is nonsensical.

      The truth is, a pastor’s speech is just speech – no different than when a guy stands up and reads a phone book. If people are so dumb as to think his reading a phone book is holy revelation, the separation of church and state nevertheless remains intact – unless the state acknowledges the speaker’s decree and then acts on it. Likewise, should the state issue a decree regarding the church (such as “pastors cannot endorse candidates”), the separation of church and state remains intact unless the church acknowledges and acts on the state’s decree whether voluntarily or by compulsion. Truly, the separation of church and state has already been destroyed – and the state here is the culprit. There is no objective line between politics and morality. Pastors should be free to literally condemn any pastor, or any law of the state with mere words, and as long as the state refuses to respect these words by any means, the Constitution remains intact.

      Christians are just willing to take these limitations because they want to keep the almighty dollar. Rather than take freedom to declare the truth as they see it, however others might arbitrarily define it, Christians are too afraid to risk losing tax exemptions. If you want to know the meaning of hypocrisy, just look at any pastor who is afraid to reject a candidate who defames the Identity of the God they claim to love.

      The author of the article to which you have responded is dead wrong. He essentially claims that Pulpit Freedom is inherently wrong for “spiritual” reasons. He even goes on to “argue” that pastors taking freedom to speak as they wish are advancing slavery. Your response was a breath of fresh air amid the remarkable stench of the author’s nonsense because it rightly accepts freedom in the pulpit, while soundly rejecting the inappropriate use of that freedom.

      Christians claim to know The God of All Reality, the Glory of All Possible Glory, The Ultimate Might Besides Which No Other Might Can Possibly Exist, The Very Definition of Good, The One Who Reaches Down with Pity for Lost Men. If God is as exceptional as your scriptures claim, and if you claim to know him, then how is it that so many Christians completely overlook this Excellency that they claim to know, to elevate before themselves, before their children, before the nations of the earth, and before God Himself, a leader who claims God is just some guy who later became god, that millions such gods now exist in other places, and that regular today can also because gods in the same way? How can Christians be so wretched and stupid? I conclude that they can be thus because the church is comprised of a bunch of liars. No one who actually knows the Highest of the High can even hope to ever overlook and defame Him as Christians do. They are obvious liars.

      I have an idea of God. It is just an idea, one that is created and informed by my reading of your scriptures. The idea is now with me, and I must say that when I accept it is The Truth, I have to admit that compared to it, I am little else but a liar, a cheat, and a thief, one who is innately unworthy of Something that is like the God that I carry around in my mind – the God that you people claim to actually know.

      I love the Idea of Him, and oddly, the mere idea is enough to cause me to be absolutely incensed that so many of you Christians, who claim to love not merely the idea, but the actual God Himself, are so worthless that you would not be at least as incensed as I, when a worldwide leader comes along to declare that God, your God, is something as nauseatingly filthy as the god of Mormonism.

      Your God declares that He is simultaneously Ultimate Annihilation and Ultimate Defense, Unfathomable Hatred and Unfathomable Love, First and Last, Three Persons Radiating Through all Realities as One Being in Substance. He is Lord of All Realities, including Moral Realities. When He calls a thing “bad,” it truly becomes a bad thing. And when He says a thing is “Good,” it is actually Good. When He speaks, that idea behind the words gain texture and literal existence. This God of yours declares, REPEATEDLY, that He is jealous of this identity and that besides Him there is nothing else. Yet Mitt Romney declares that God is something wholly different than this – that God is just some guy who lived a good life, and who eventually became a god, and who has come to exist as ruler of his own universe with his many wives in the same way that millions of others gods have come to exist in their own universes with their many wives. And yet this is the leader who many of you, even now, eagerly seek to raise up before your children, before all the nations, and before God Himself, as your representative.

      So-called Christians who are not incensed by the thought of raising up such a leader truly sicken me. Pastors of this sort particularly sicken me. I love and harbor in my mind a mere idea of your God, and these pastors are a stench even to this idea of God. Surely they are a stench to The Actual God of All if He were to literally exist.

      While Christian pastors and other leaders ought to be shouting their God’s identity from the rooftops, and soundly and clearly rejecting the notion of elevating anyone who would defame it, they instead stand by and claim it is actual slavery to do such a thing, that is fails to protect the “sacred space” of worship and other comprehensive Christianized lunacy. When you people permit the object of your “sacred space” to be redefined so that a filthy definition of Him becomes acceptable to the worshipers in that “sacred space,” then your “sacred space” is already contaminated. Indeed, it is filthier than it can ever be. I see your God in my mind. I see His Son, in my mind. I even see why it is that faith is the only pathway by which we can join Him. After all, if He tries to win us by doing anything that displays here in space-time, I am going to question and doubt it until I can explain it. So I actually get the idea of faith, and am fascinated by it. Indeed, I must say, that some part of me even loves the shape of it. Even I, for whom God is just an Idea, understand that The Object of your “sacred space” is what matters. The Christ of your gospel is what matters first and foremost because if it is the worthless “christ” that permits you to so easily overlook God’s Glory in the way you now do, then your “sacred space” is every bit as worthless as that of Mormonism.

      I think Christians are putting the final nail in the coffin of their faith. You are mainstreaming the Mormon belief system, which is a filth to your God. You are also showing the world just how little admiration, love, and belief you have in God. Vast numbers of so-called Christians now struggle to elevate as their leader someone who openly redefines God into something that differs from the God that was declared by all other presidents in American history. These same Christians are so gobsmacking stupid that they would then turn around and call on God to bless them and their nation.

      It is clear to me that actually knowing God would not permit this foolishness. All who truly know Him, whether faced with life, death, or the loss of a tax-exemption, would be compelled to rise up and clearly refuse to defame God in this way.

  • scott stone

    I agree with your post 100% but this has been going on in many African American churches for decades now. It is more than just tacit approval, it has been full out endorsement of democrat candidates. With very little push back from progressive theologians I might add.
    Is this now an issue because a conservative group (who I completely disagree with) is pushing the agenda?

  • Tim Suttle

    Well, the alliance of the secular left and liberal/mainline pastors is equally as dubious as the unholy alliance of the Secular right and the Christian right. I think the key piece for me is the remember that when we are voting for president, we are voting for a new Pharaoh (not a pastor in chief). America does not equal New Israel. America equals empire. Christians have to keep their emotional distance from any party or candidate.

    Having said that, Scott, I think you have to allow that for African Americans who still suffer under the weight of centuries of injustice, the need for the African American pastor to speak is fundamentally different from the overwhelmingly white affluent crowd involved with ADF’s project and constituency. I think it’s worth nothing that difference and recognizing that, whatever we make of it, it is a categorically different thing for a black pastor to address a black congregation (one that lives on the margins & is vulnerable in ways middle class whites are not), especially concerning the political and economic injustice they are suffering, compared to a white, mostly affluent pastor who speaks to a mostly white church that has not had the same history of injustice.

    Part of what galls me about the Tea Party narrative is that 50+ year old white males have so much to be angry about. It’s absurd.

    • Alfonso Martinez

      Absurd, racist, and biased response. I am disappointed, especially when you fail to mention or account for the fact that many black pastors across the north and south have preyed on their marginalized congregations for years by involving themselves in graft in exchange for packaging congregation and community votes. There is no free pass on this issue of backing candidates, especially backing candidates for non-Biblical reasons.

  • scott stone

    Sounds like a distinction without a difference. I’ll have to disagree with that “Christians have to keep their emotional distance from any party or candidate.” I pray for our leaders on a regular basis. I feel that as a Christian I am expected to be engaged. I can’t be committed and engaged and at the same time emotionally disconnected.
    I’m probably not understanding your position clearly but my position is consistent. Endorsement from the pulpit is wrong regardless of political leanings. Race is irrelevant for this topic. I was just pointing out that many African American churches have crossed the line for decades regarding political endorsements. If my white pastor (not sure why that is even relevant) were to endorse someone I’d be having serious discussions with him.
    One other thing: What’s with the Tea Party thing? Where did that come from?

  • Dennis Schultz

    Excellent blog; one of the best of my blog reading this week. This strategy of church and pastor as partisan political players is harmful to the church and to our democratic ideals. The church is taken off mission. If the church and its leaders endorse candidates, then the church is violating the law. Charities [and churches are to be charities] benefit from tax-exempt status. If the current status is overturned, then all religious groups and charities would also be allowed to participate in partisan politicking – and such churches will be seen as simply another tool of a political party. Additionally, this entry into party politics would be subsidized by the American tax payer. A more honorable way is for such a religious organization [or any of these churches] to voluntarily drop their non-profit status and function as a political-religious group.

  • Brent Fergeson

    I couldn’t agree more. There are plenty of sources for citizens to read up on candidate’s positions on morality issues. The church would see better results by teaching of our Father’s love, grace and mercy. Once a person truly understands God’s love for him, he will know how to vote without a pastor attempting to educate or persuade.

  • I disagree with you. I think the IRS should revoke their non-profit status per the law and make up for some of their lost revenue with some megachurch dollars. Here’s what I wrote about this. The contrast between Pulpit Freedom Sunday and World Communion Sunday (also this weekend) could not be starker: http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/2012/10/05/pulpit-freedom-vs-world-communion-a-solomonic-choice/

  • al

    So sad that you continue to allow special groups to do what you are preaching against because of their so many years of mistreatment. Every one in the USA has vast opportunity to advance. It takes effort to pull your pants up over your butt, put your cap on right, learn to speak so that others can understand you and most importantly make an effort. It may not come over night but it will come. The adminstration of our country and the press is telling the ones’s that are not wealthy that they deserve some of what the wealthy have. So what do they do? Get their guns out and try to take their share of what they have been told is theirs. If you want to help someone get out there and tell them to take responsibility for their circumstances

  • Nice try– but every Sunday should be freedom for pastor to rail against anything our lawmakers do that goes against God’s law..from abortion to same sex marriage to being poor stewards of our tax dollars to enslaving people through taxes and entitlements.
    Wake up and have some guts– you can preach against tyranny as our preacher forefathers did when we broke away from King George. Anytime a government sets itself up as a kingdom–we need to remind them there is no king but King Jesus!

    • Jason A.

      Rev. Dave, are you not familiar with Romans 13? Many theologians are now re-evaluating the legitimacy of the American Revolution. And these are not liberal theologians either. What’s done is done and I certainly wouldn’t want to live under tyranny. However, I want to push back a bit against the rhetoric I heard in your comment.

      • Rupaul

        I haven’t heard about theologians re-evaluating the American Revolution, but we US citizens should think again about what happened: the huge percentage of the colonial population who were Tory sympathizers were forced to flee to Canada, and lost their property and businesses in the newly independent states. People who tried to stay neutral were persecuted and physically mistreated.

    • Den

      Rev. Deppisch —
      Our Declaration of Independence says this, among many other things: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
      “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
      We have a secular government – may there never in this world be any other kind – and we have the Kingdom of Heaven. The one is a done deal, and the other is a work in progress that awaits its consummation upon a second coming. For a pastor to stand in front of his congregation and advocate for any person running for office is for that pastor to remove the mantle of the office he was ordained to fulfill, and to become no different, and no better, than any other flack working for a political campaign.
      If Pastor X wants to discuss in private what his political views are, fine. If, on the other hand, he tries to sway the congregation, then he has failed to cultivate the unity of the Kingdom.
      If my church’s pastoral staff tried pulling that nonsense, they would be visited by one very irate congregant, and there would be a confrontation. I have every reason to believe that they will not do so, because they are on a more important mission, and from all I’ve seen, they have marked out for themselves a more excellent way to embark on it.

  • Jim Robertson

    Next step would be accepting payments for airing opinions from the pulpit.

    • Paula Connell

      Jim Robertson: if you don’t understand that this is already happening – in addition to pastors and church leaders who quietly whore out their pulpits to politicians for cash donations in the offering plate – then you’re not paying attention.

  • Bun

    I abhor partisan politics, especially when they’re using pulpit as their means. Many of today’s Christians and Evangelicals are blinded by the propaganda from the Republican money machine.
    God forbids Romney wins, but if he does, maybe it’s part of the fulfillment of prophecy related to the decline of America.
    God bless America, God saves us from Republican’s dirty agenda.

    I am an independent Christian, b t w

  • Excellent Tim. Really appreciate this. Nice to hear you say you tremble in addressing politics, because you do it so well. I affirm your belief in being objective and the need to stay free from tying ourselves to one party, or the system in general.

    Continue to find life in your work. So thanks.

  • Michael McCoy, M.Div.

    This article proves just how insidious this Pulpit Freedom Sunday propaganda really is. This organization would have us believe that we cannot preach or teach on issues, e.g. the person railing about same-sex marriage. In fact churches are allowed, and have always been allowed to preach on ethical and social issues. What they MAY NOT do is endorse a candidate or take a side on political issues. One may preach for or against the ethics of same-sex marriage, for or against gun control, and so on. One may not say, “…and so vote for Frank Smith because he will make sure this does/doesn’t happen.” I concur with the person who suggested the IRS pursue anyone who flagrantly violates this law because I do agree that this is not what we should be doing in churches.
    I also concur with the person who says that predominantly Black congregations do not get a pass on this issue. There is no difference between this happening in a predominantly White congregation and in a predominantly Black congregation. Your response sounds like a well meaning White person trying not to sound racist, but in fact it is saying that Black people cannot address these issues without skirting the law. In essence, they cannot take care of themselves as well as we White, middle-class, Protestants. First of all, not all Black people are living in the margins. Believe it or not, it is possible for Black people to be middle-class, Protestants. Second, some White people live on the margins of society, yet they get no free pass. For that matter neither do Latino/a, Native North Americans, or other groups that are also under-represented in our society. I’m sure you meant well, but this seems another example of White privilege sublimated with progressive intentions.

  • So I agree–as a matter of best practices for ministry–that pastors shouldn’t promote a political agenda from the pulpit. But I’m not sure it’s any of my business what some other pastor does in her or his pulpit, and I really don’t think it is the government’s business to regulate–via the tax code–what is said by pastors on sunday morning. I’m still trying to figure out why the the pulpit on Sunday Morning is the only place in American life where the constitution’s guarantees of the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion don’t apply.