Endorsing political candidates from the pulpit: Thus sayeth the Lord …

My friend Brian Lee, pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington D.C., has written an excellent critique of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” at Real Clear Religion. Brian is a thoughtful political commentator and has spent years working for the federal government. Here he writes on the campaign to get pastors not only to speak to political issues this Sunday, but to endorse political candidates:

That’s what Jim Garlow and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) are urging preachers to deliver. ADF is promoting October 7th as “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” and is asking ministers to dedicate their sermons to explicit politicking. According to an online pledge, sermons should evaluate the presidential candidates according to “biblical truths and church doctrine,” and make a specific endorsement.

Lee reminds readers that the campaign has a specific goal: the defiance of IRS regulations.

ADF’s goal is to openly defy the 1954 “Johnson Amendment” to the tax code that prohibits tax-exempt organizations from making political endorsements. The provision has never been actively enforced, and by forcing the IRS to such action ADF hopes to trigger a court challenge and eventually have the provision overturned on constitutional grounds.

He also reminds us that it is highly questionable to call pastors to political activism when the very purpose of that activism is to defend a tax-exempt status. Jesus, after all, had something to say about the attitude of Christians toward mammon, taxes, and the rights of Caesar.

To be sure, the regulation in question is somewhat problematic and ought to be taken off the books. In fact, this is not a controversial opinion. Lee points out that drawing sharp lines between morality and religion on the one hand, and political speech on the other, as some seek to do, is an enormously problematic endeavor.

In our hyper-politicized age, the line between religious and political speech is an exceedingly difficult one to draw. Teaching on the morality of war and peace, on social issues including marriage, life, and finance are inherently political. It’s not clear who in the IRS is qualified to evaluate religious speech for its political content, or what the political support would be for committing a few thousand IRS agents to enforcing this ban….

The primary message the New Testament commends to preachers — “Christ, and him crucified!” — is scarcely a political one. But this doesn’t mean preachers should be constrained from speaking politically. One care barely open one’s mouth on a moral question of the day without giving political offense, and no one would suggest God’s word has nothing to say on these matters.

Well said. The church cannot allow the world (or politics) to determine what it can and cannot say. On the other hand, as Lee points out, the vast majority of pastors refuse to endorse candidates from the pulpit (although African American pastors are somewhat more willing), not because they don’t have concrete opinions, but because they take their charge to preach only the word of Christ so seriously that they wouldn’t dare pollute that word with what Calvin would have called their own fictions and opinions. Lee writes,

Clearly, many pastors are constrained by the sanctity of their office, and in particular, the pulpit. They recognize the very real tradeoff that in our polarized age political speech may offend and drive off many members of the flock they are called to shepherd…. But the further the minister of the word ventures from the claim of “thus sayeth the Lord,” there is a spiritual and political price to be paid. We risk squandering moral authority and offending the politically disaffected.

Note that Lee is not simply making the pragmatic point that we don’t want to offend people (though he is saying we should not needlessly offend people; the offense should come from the word of Christ, not from our own opinions). He is pointing out that the more political pastors get in their preaching the more they destroy their own credibility. The very authority of the word is at stake here.

“Pulpit Freedom Sunday” is a terrible idea.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on October 5, 2012, in 2012 election, Preaching, Religious Liberty, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Endorsing political candidates from the pulpit: Thus sayeth the Lord ….

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