Thursday, June 26, 2008

Politics in the Pulpit

This past Sunday, I saw something rather disturbing when I attended services at a local church. For reasons that will become obvious, I will not identify the church except to say that it was of a liberal Protestant denomination.

The service in question was a special congregation-led affair that featured a segment where people could talk about what they were doing over the summer. One woman talked about her attendance at an AIDS conference, and mentioned that many other people who attended the conference hoped a new president in the White House would change American AIDS policy. She left no doubt that she meant Barack Obama, although she did not explicitly mention him.

The political endorsements became more explicit, however, with one of the next people to speak. She declared that she would be volunteering for Barack Obama over the summer in order to convince Hillary Clinton supporters not to vote for John McCain. She urged other people also to volunteer, if I remember correctly.

Although I agree fully with these congregants’ choice of candidate, I think they seriously erred in using the church as a forum for their chosen political campaign. This is not the first time this has happened at the church in question. Several months ago, in the lead up to the Pennsylvania primary, the minister (who it should be noted was not present at this Sunday’s service) reminded the congregation to register as Democrats so they could choose between Obama and Clinton. Although he did not endorse either candidate, it is difficult to imagine that a Republican or Libertarian congregant would have been made to feel comfortable by this announcement.

The significance of these incidents increases when one considers that churches are not supposed to endorse specific candidates for office if they want to keep their tax-exempt status. Several evangelical churches have gotten into trouble for endorsing Republican candidates, and it would be hypocritical and unfair for more liberal churches to engage in the same behavior. Lobbying for social justice is one thing, endorsing a specific candidate is entirely another.

Some will no doubt object that this is an infringement upon free speech, and it may well be in some respects. I would have no difficulty allowing ministers to endorse specific candidates, if churches paid taxes like any other part of civil society, as I feel they should. Those who will not contribute their fair share to civil society have no right to expect the full rights it offers. The government should not subsidize, in the form of tax breaks, a partisan organization that directly endorses candidates. Since there is no reason to expect in the near future that churches will begin paying their fair share, I feel this is the best compromise that can be worked out.

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