Politics from the pulpit: free speech or partisan danger?

Sunday, October 3, 2004

When Pastor Ronnie Floyd called on his congregation to “vote God,” he didn’t mention George Bush or John Kerry by name.

But by the end of Floyd’s July 4 sermon to the First Baptist Church of Springdale, Ark., everyone in the congregation knew exactly how their preacher wanted them to cast their vote.

Free speech? Or tax-code violation? Churches are getting conflicting advice.

In a letter sent Sept. 22 to churches throughout the country, Americans United for Separation of Church and State reminds church leaders that Internal Revenue Service regulations forbid all tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) organizations — including churches — from promoting or endorsing candidates. According to Americans United, this means no partisan preaching or electioneering from the pulpit.

To make its point, Americans United filed a complaint in July with the IRS against Floyd’s church for engaging in partisan politics. Then in August, AU asked the IRS to investigate a political rally at an African-American church in Miami.

But another letter sent to 300,000 churches in September, this one from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, challenges the view that preaching from the pulpit constitutes intervening in a political campaign. When speaking to their own congregations, the letter argues, pastors are exercising their freedom of speech and religion under the First Amendment.

The IRS disagrees. The Becket Fund recognizes this, but still urges religious leaders to speak freely from the pulpit — and offers to “defend free of charge any good-faith religious message — left, right, or center, wisdom or nonsense — preached from the pulpit.”

Both sides can agree on this much: IRS regulations allow clergy to preach about moral or political issues, as long as they don’t favor one candidate over another. But as Ronnie Floyd’s case illustrates, some ministers push the envelope by providing a “voter guide” that some argue is a thinly disguised endorsement of one party or candidate.

Of course, the current fight over politics from the pulpit isn’t new. From charges against Jerry Falwell for using his ministry to support Republicans to charges against African-American churches for endorsing Democrats, the IRS code has triggered bitter disputes and lawsuits for many years.

But the tone of the dispute seems to have become especially bitter during this hotly contested political campaign. The rhetoric started to heat up in July during a debate in Kansas over a state amendment banning same-sex marriage. After a local minister began organizing to defeat candidates who voted against the amendment, an advocacy group called Mainstream Coalition sent volunteers into churches to monitor political activity.

Outraged by the actions of Mainstream Coalition (and complaining about what they view as a “double standard” focus on conservative churches), some conservative Christian leaders have decided to retaliate. In August, William Murray (evangelical son of atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair) started Big Brother Church Watch with a Web site called “Rat Out a Church” to recruit volunteers. Murray claims to have already placed monitors in liberal churches to end what he describes as “radical left-wing politics in the pulpit.”

Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., a bill currently before Congress would amend the IRS Code to allow political endorsements during worship services — or at other church-sponsored gatherings. The bill, dubbed the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act, has 165 co-sponsors (mostly Republicans).

It appears that Republican leaders in the House want to rush this legislation into law by attaching it to a bill now before a House-Senate conference committee.

That would be a mistake. However persuasive the free-speech argument may be to some Americans, the risks of opening the door to partisan politics from the pulpit should be a matter of full public debate.

What are the long-term implications for religious groups if clergy begin endorsing candidates for public office from the pulpit? Will this change mean more freedom of religion and speech — or turn houses of worship into campaign vehicles, dividing congregations along partisan lines? Questions like these merit serious consideration — not a quick fix rushed through Congress by the majority party.

For anyone who cares about the First Amendment, the question of church involvement in partisan politics should be a principled discussion of tax exemption for religious groups, church-state relations, and the meaning of free exercise of religion in America.

But for partisans on both sides of the political divide, “pulpit politics” is less about the tax code or free speech and more about winning elections. The left worries about the growing influence of conservative churches in the Republican Party — while the right complains about the political activism for Democrats in African-American churches and liberal religious groups.

Most Americans currently oppose churches endorsing political candidates (65% in a recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life). At the same time, however, few of us want the IRS to be the “speech police” in order to keep that from happening.

And the specter of citizen spies — liberal or conservative — taking notes in pews is an offense to religious freedom.

Is it possible to have a civil, thoughtful dialogue about political activity in houses of worship? Not before Nov. 2. Then we should try.