Politics in the Pulpit?

They’re at it again.

A group of pastors wants to repeal a 1954 amendment that prohibits them from endorsing political candidates from the pulpit; doing so means losing their tax-exempt (501c3) status.

According to The Aquila Report, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) launched an effort in 2008 called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday”–a coordinated effort to get pastors to preach on political issues, then send their recorded sermons into the IRS. Since then, some 1,200 pastors have done so, essentially daring the IRS to act, which would then set up a court challenge. Once a judge hears the case, it is believed, the Johnson Amendment would then be declared unconstitutional.

“I believe this really is becoming a nationwide movement of pastors who are saying, ‘You have no constitutional right to in any way interfere with what I preach from the pulpit to my congregation,’” said Bishop Aubrey Shines.

What to do with this?

In one sense, repealing the Johnson Amendment is not a bad thing. After all, the First Amendment allows the freedom of speech, and until 1954, pastors could–and did–freely endorse political candidates from the pulpit without fear of government reprisal.

On the other hand, is it wise for pastors to do this? Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians that “all things are lawful, but not all things are profitable.” Applied to this situation, while it might be Constitutional for pastors to endorse candidates from the pulpit, is it necessarily the right thing to do?

There are at least three reasons why it is not.

First, endorsing candidates for political office is not the church’s calling. Jesus Christ commanded His Church to proclaim the gospel. The Apostle Paul resolved to proclaim nothing but Christ crucified. On the latter passage, Paul admits that this is “foolishness” to the gentiles, but this was nonetheless the content of his message. Surely there would have been some who pleaded with Paul to preach on more “relevant” topics, such as how the local Rome-appointed magistrate was doing. But Paul stuck to his Christ-appointed task of preaching the gospel.

The goal of preaching is simply this: to proclaim the life-saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, and then to edify, comfort, encourage, and confront the congregation with God’s Word. Yes, this will include the ethical implications of God’s Law, which will inevitably lead churchgoers to draw certain conclusions on how to vote. There is nothing wrong with that; in fact, that is how it should be, assuming the Bible is faithfully taught and applied. The problem comes when pastors cross the line from ethical implications and dictate who their flock should vote for.

This leads to the second reason why candidates shouldn’t endorse candidates from the pulpit: it binds the consciences of believers.

A very important principle of Christian living is that only God’s Word can dictate how believers are to live. Christ constantly warned about the Pharisees who added onerous restrictions to God’s Law. The Apostle Paul likewise wrote against those who “forbid marriage and require abstinence from food” and force outdated requirements upon believers (see Rom. 14:1-6, Col. 2:16-17, 1 Tim. 4:3). In the midst of his discussion on Christian liberty in 1 Corinthians–essential reading which the Church needs to return to from time to time–Paul asked the poignant question, “For why should my liberty be governed by someone else’s conscience?”

Let’s place this in the present context. Suppose you have two people running for Congress: one supports abortion in every instance, the other is strongly pro-life. Granted, there may be all kinds of reasons why you wouldn’t want to vote for a candidate who supports abortion. But what if the pro-life candidate has been involved in shady business practices? Would that not involve a violation of the Eighth Commandment? And suppose for a moment that someone in the pews on that pre-election Sunday was directly affected by the pro-life candidate’s malfeasance. If he rebuts his pastor’s endorsement and leaves his ballot empty for that particular contest, is he sinning? Not at all: this would be a picture-perfect example of causing a weaker brother to sin.

Surely, then, it is best for the pastor to proclaim the Bible, and let the people vote according to their consciences as it is informed by God’s Word.

That is not to say it’s wrong to have church meetings to educate congregants on the issues that are at stake. Some time ago, I went to such a meeting where an elder (who is a lawyer, has been at that church for many years, and so is trusted by the congregation) did an excellent job in educating the people on what the various propositions and local candidates. Never once did he tell us how to vote, and we left that meeting better for it.

Suffice to say, there is a big difference between educating church members on often complex issues, versus mandating who they should vote for. The first is permissible, and even desirable in many cases. The second is not.

Third, placing the church’s imprimatur upon a candidate puts the church’s (and hence Christ’s) credibility at stake.

Let us retreat for a moment to our first point about the church’s role: proclaiming the Gospel and the whole counsel of God. These days, we have plenty of people who are very skeptical about Christianity. We also have had lots of politicians supported by churches who were either clouded by scandal or otherwise made a mess of things.

Take President George W. Bush, for instance. In my view, while he did some good things (he had a strong pro-life record, appointed several strict constructionist judges to the federal courts, and prevented another 9-11 attack on our soil), he also made some big mistakes: at best, the Iraq venture was very poorly handled, and over $4 trillion was added to the national debt on his watch–both of which are deleterious to our nation’s future.

Granted, much more could be said on the Bush presidency. My only point in bringing it up is to illustrate the problem of endorsing candidates from the pulpit: while I’m certain that many pastors just preached the Bible and let the chips fall where they may in 2000 and 2004, how many Christians heard an outright endorsement of Bush from their pulpits? How many people voted for him despite qualms about his handling of Iraq, the national debt, or other concerns? How many people voted for him because their pastor told them to, only to be later disillusioned about the gospel later on?

We’ll never know for certain, but these are questions we ought to be asking very seriously, given the church’s role.

And yes, it may very well be true that many other pastors declared that their people should vote for other candidates of different partisan and ideological stripes. They are wrong, too.

So back to the original question of whether or not the 1954 Johnson Amendment should be repealed: from a purely legal perspective, it should be.

But is it really worth it, given what’s at stake?

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2 thoughts on “Politics in the Pulpit?

  1. Pingback: Politics in the Pulpit?

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