Matthew R. Perry

Politics in the Pulpit? What’s Wrong With That? (USA Today)

In Church Life, Culture, Politics on May 16, 2006 at 2:49 am

In the April 17 USA Today, Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett argues that it is not the place of government to determine what is or is not appropriate in terms of political speech in the pulpit. He writes: "the First Amendment does not constrain — in fact, it protects — 'political' preaching and faith-filled activism. Yes, our Constitution preserves a healthy separation between the institutions of religion and government. This wise arrangement protects individual freedom and civil society by preventing the state from directing, co-opting or controlling the church. It imposes no limits, though, on conversations among religious believers — whether on Sunday morning, around the water cooler, or at the dinner table — about the implications of their faith for the controversies of the day. Our First Amendment protects religious freedom, individual conscience and church independence from government interference; it requires neither a faith-free public square nor politics-free sermons.

"Even if the Constitution does not presume to tell ministers to stick to parables, is it bad citizenship, or just plain bad manners, for ministers to confuse our 'public' role as citizens and voters with our supposedly 'private' religious lives and beliefs? No. Religious faith makes claims, for better or worse, that push the believer inexorably toward charitable and conscientious engagement in 'public life.' To the extent that religion purports to provide insight into human nature and relations, it necessarily speaks to politics. We best respect each other through honest dialogue by making arguments that reflect our beliefs, not by censoring ourselves or insisting that religious believers translate their commitments into focus-group jargon or cost-benefit analysis.

"True, there is the matter of the tax laws. Churches have, for centuries, for the most part been immune from taxes imposed by secular authority. Accordingly, the United States has long exempted corporations organized and operated exclusively for religious purposes from federal taxation. This exemption, however, comes at a price: Like other tax-exempt charitable organizations, religious communities may not engage in activities and expression that are regarded by government as excessively political (or, perhaps, as insufficiently religious).

"It is the regulation of the churches' expression, and not their expression itself, that should raise constitutional red flags. Religious institutions are not above the law, but a government that respects the separation of church and state should be extremely wary of telling churches and religious believers whether they are being appropriately "religious" or excessively "political" or partisan. Churches and congregants, not bureaucrats and courts, must define the perimeter of religion's challenges. It should not be for the state to label as electioneering, endorsement, or lobbying what a religious community considers evangelism, worship or witness.

"Of course, there are good reasons — religious reasons — for clergy to be cautious and prudent when addressing campaigns, issues and candidates.

"Reasonable people with shared religious commitments still can disagree about many, even most, policy and political matters. It compromises religion to not only confine its messages to the Sabbath but also to pretend that it speaks clearly to every policy question. A hasty endorsement, or a clumsy or uncharitable political charge, has no place in a house of worship or during a time of prayer — not because religion does not speak to politics, but because it is about more, and is more important, than politics." (Click here to read the full article)

(From PreachingNow, Vol. 5, no. 17. May 16, 2006 — )


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