Wink, wink pulpit wars

Wink, wink pulpit wars October 1, 2008

The political endorsement was clear, although the words were carefully chosen.

New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop clearly wanted to inspire his supporters, even his own priests, to back Sen. Barack Obama. Still, he stressed that his endorsement was personal, not corporate.

”I will not be speaking about the campaign from the pulpit or at any church function,” the bishop told reporters, in a 2007 conference call that drew low-key, calm news coverage. ”That is completely inappropriate. But as a private citizen, I will be at campaign events and help in any way that I can.”

The reaction was different after the Rev. Luke Emrich preached to about 100 evangelicals at New Life Church this past weekend, near Milwaukee. Veering from scripture into politics, he said his beliefs about abortion would control his vote.

“I’m telling you straight up, I would choose life,” said Emrich, in a text that is being sent to the Internal Revenue Service. “I would cast a vote for John McCain and Sarah Palin. … But friends, it’s your choice to make, it’s not my choice. I won’t be in the voting booth with you.”

Like the liberal Episcopal bishop, Emrich openly endorsed a candidate. And, like the bishop, he made it clear he was speaking for himself. The difference was that Emrich spoke from a pulpit, not a desk at the top of a church hierarchy.

Legal or illegal? That’s a matter of location, location, location.

Emrich is one of 33 pastors nationwide who signed up for “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” an attempt by the Alliance Defense Fund to challenge IRS code language that says nonprofit, tax-exempt entities — including churches — may not “participate in, or intervene in … any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.”

While all the sermons during this initiative mentioned candidates, some of the ministers used different approaches, said Erik Stanley, the Alliance Defense Fund’s senior legal counsel. The organization is voluntarily sending the sermons to the IRS.

“We did not mandate for these pastors what they should or shouldn’t say. We didn’t write the sermons,” he said. “I know that we had pastors who said, ‘I would not vote for so and so.’ I know others said, ‘I urge you not to vote for so and so.’ Some said, ‘I plan to vote for so and so, but I’m only speaking for myself.’ ”

There’s the rub. For decades, many clerics — liberal and conservative — have practiced a variety of wink-wink endorsement strategies. For example:

* Supporters of abortion rights have long challenged the “Respect Life Sunday” events in Catholic parishes in early October. However, some priests use this day to stress Vatican pronouncements on the uniquely evil nature of abortion, which can be seen as a nod to Republicans. Meanwhile, other priests proclaim a broader “Culture of Life” agenda, stressing health care, the environment and issues that may favor Democrats.

* Some clergy, in a various ethnic churches and doctrinal camps, have invited politicians into services, where they are openly embraced and honored them with cheers that “this candidate is one of us.” The congregation applauds and shouts “amen.” Is this an endorsement?

* Pastors may deliver sermons that stick to a moral or religious issue and then say that it’s sinful to support politicians — while avoiding names — who violate what the pastor says is the biblical stand on that issue. In this case, it doesn’t matter if the issue being discussed is the war in Iraq, abortion, immigration or gay rights.

* Some religious leaders merely “recommend” candidates, rather than offering explicit “endorsements.”

Finally, what if an endorsement is delivered from an office at the heart of a sacred bureaucracy, rather than from the pulpit in a sanctuary?

There’s the big question, said Stanley. When do winks and nods become illegal? Are the rules applied the same way for liberals and conservatives?

“This is what we’re trying to find out,” he said. “How is a pastor supposed to know what he can and cannot do? Many pastors are afraid of crossing some line out there and they censor themselves, because they don’t know exactly where it is. They want to address these great moral issues from a biblical perspective, but they don’t know how far the IRS will let them go.”

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