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).