Pulpit Freedom Sunday: They Preached. They Endorsed. Did They Break the Law?

Despite 60,000 letters from Americans United for Separation of church and State, some 1,500 pastors of various denominations took to the pulpit to endorse political candidates last Sunday.

This action is not only controversial in the nation as a whole, clergy are divided about it, as well.

At the very least, Pulpit Freedom Sunday raises the question of whether or not the government can limit critics from having their say from the pulpit. A Baptist Press article about Pulpit Freedom Sunday says in part:

Charlotte, USA – Baptist Pastor Mark Harris stood before his flock in North Carolina on Sunday and joined hundreds of other U.S. religious leaders in deliberately breaking the law in an election-year campaign that tests the role of churches in politics.

By publicly backing candidates for political office from the pulpit, Harris and nearly 1,500 other preachers at services across the United States were flouting a law they see as an incursion on freedom of religion and speech.

Under the U.S. tax code, non-profit organizations such as churches may express views on any issue, but they jeopardize their favorable tax-exempt status if they speak for or against any political candidate.

“Pulpit Freedom Sunday” has been staged annually since 2008 by a group called the Alliance Defending Freedom. Its aim is to provoke a challenge from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service in order to file a lawsuit and have its argument out in court.

The event has grown steadily in size, but the IRS has yet to respond – even though the pastors tape their sermons and mail them to the agency.

Now in an election year, where a few swing states – including North Carolina – will be crucial, political analysts say pastors campaigning from the pulpit could have an impact.

Critics say the movement threatens the U.S. constitutional principle of separation of church and state and makes pastors look like political operatives rather than neutral spiritual leaders.

“When the church further divides the country, where’s the win in that?” asked Reverend C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, and an opponent of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

In his sermon at First Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, Harris endorsed a Republican candidate for the state’s Supreme Court, but did not specifically takes sides in the Nov. 6 contest for the White House between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

“I don’t feel I’m breaking the law,” Harris said before addressing a congregation of almost 1,000. “I am speaking as a pastor and as a citizen of the United States where we have that freedom of speech.” (Read more here.)

Rendering Unto Caesar: Pulpit Politics and Christian Witness

Tomorrow, October 7, has been labeled Pulpit Freedom Sunday. It is a day when participating pastors will take a stand against threats against their freedom of speech by giving sermons that “preach Biblical truth about political candidates.”

The fact that ministers of the Gospels feel sufficiently pressured and harassed to self-censure their sermons to organize such a day says quite a lot. My great hope is that they will give America an astringent dose of genuine Gospel preaching without falling into the trap of indulging in personal attacks against any person or group of people. If they do that, tomorrow will be a great day.

It’s interesting to me that things have gotten this far. I can tell you for sure that the pastors in the house district that I’ve represented for going on 17 years have never been shy about speaking out. Back in the day when I was pro choice, they denounced me roundly and loudly from the pulpit, including saying a whole host of things that were untrue and extravagantly malicious.

I  never questioned their right to preach about me from the pulpit and I never made any attempt to force them to stop doing it. I think that America needs a free and untrammeled church for its health and well being as a society and a culture. I also think that the right of Americans of all walks of life to criticize their politicians and elected officials is a core freedom. I didn’t like being the target of all this hate from the pulpit, but I never wanted to curtail the freedom of speech on which it was based.

I’ve written before about the threats many pastors have faced from non-governmental groups and their vague, chain-rattling allusions to possible legal actions against those who fail to comply. I find this behavior disgusting.

The idea that the government would use or threaten to use the tax codes to silence potential critics is appalling. However, while I heartily support the right of pastors to speak freely from the pulpit, that does not mean that I support everything that gets said there. All civilized people are called to exercise personal responsibility in what they say, and Christians, especially Christian leaders, should adhere to an even higher level of personal responsibility.

I know from my own experience that when pastors regard their pulpits and the respect people hold for their position as an entitlement to attack and harm people, they damage the Body of Christ.

It is past time for clergy to stand up against the oft-proclaimed notion that the pulpit should be a free-speech-free zone where government censorship can run riot. But I do hope that whatever truth they decide to proclaim is, in fact, the truth, and not just an amalgam of oft-repeated slanders.

That’s what happened when pastors attacked me. They said outlandish, slanderous things. They said things that were personal, sexual, and verifiably untrue. They were cruel, vicious and, I realize now, an embarrassment to Christ and genuine Christianity.

What these preachers said didn’t convert me at all. In fact, they hardened me in my thinking. I experienced a profound religious conversion a few years later. But most of my friends of that time remain hardened in their dislike and contempt for Christianity and, by default, Jesus Himself. What these preachers said about me isn’t the only reason for this, but it is a contributing factor.

I will be praying for these pastors who plan to “speak truth” this Sunday, but probably not exactly as they would expect. I pray that they will tell the truth and not go off into some hellacious slander fest. I also hope that they remember that they are most likely not Jeremiah and John the Baptist all rolled up into one person, so maybe they should behave with a bit of judicious thoughtfulness before engaging in wild denunciations of individuals and whole groups of people.

America needs the cleansing fire of strong Christian preaching. Say a prayer with me that this is what happens tomorrow.

For more about Pulpit Freedom Sunday, go here.

 

 


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