Two bills now pending before the U.S. House of Representatives would breach the wall of separation between church and state and, unfortunately, inject political poison into America’s pulpits.
They are the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act (HR 2357), introduced by Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., and the Bright-Line Act of 2001 (HR 2931), sponsored by Rep. Phil Crane, R-Ill. Both bills would amend the Internal Revenue Code, enabling churches and other religious organizations to endorse political candidates and still maintain their tax-exempt status. The Bright-Line Act also would allow churches to spend up to 5 percent of their budgets on partisan political causes.
Supporters claim the bills protect free speech. “The IRS should not be the ‘Speech Patrol,'” Jones told members of the House Ways and Means Committee. “Our spiritual leaders should feel free to speak on moral and political issues of the day, including talking about candidates for public office and where they stand on those issues. If a minister believes that one candidate best reflects that church’s moral beliefs, the IRS should be in no position to deter him or her from saying so.”
To the contrary, churches and ministers already enjoy a great degree of speech and political freedom. “Preachers can speak out with impunity, even from the pulpit, on any issue, and churches may engage in some lobbying to advocate moral/ethical positions,” explained Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee. Churches may conduct voter registration campaigns, education projects and non-partisan candidate forums, he added, noting pastors and church leaders also may, as individuals, “participate in the electoral political process as much as they wish.”
The breadth and depth of this freedom is illustrated by the fact the IRS has sought to impose sanctions on only a handful of churches in recent years. And IRS actions were decidedly non-partisan: For example, one church was targeted for campaigning against Bill Clinton; another was cited for endorsing Al Gore. These few instances stand out against thousands of occasions where churches spoke out on social and moral issues, participated in voter-education efforts and registered voters by the tens of thousands. Additionally, ministers across the land have exercised their rights as individual citizens to address the political process.
Contrast this with the dangers of these bills:
If the bills pass, the “bright line” will be bent into a “bright target” on the churches of America. Politicians, political parties and political activists will paint a bull’s-eye on congregations. They will target churches and synagogues as vehicles for carrying cash to partisan political causes. Just think of the possibilities—hundreds of thousands of congregations, each capable of channeling up to 5 percent of their budgets to candidates and partisan causes. Political money corrupts. Can you conceive of the infection set loose in congregations when they are approached about providing political funding or, just as bad, laundering others’ political contributions through their budgets?
So, what may be a field of dreams for politicians becomes a minefield for pastors and parishioners. Doing church is hard enough already. We’re perfectly capable of arguing over worship music and denominational discord without adding political affiliation to the mix. Most churches contain an amalgamation of political perspectives, and this works because members tend to check their politics at the church door. But imagine arriving in a community and scoping out all the church signs to see if they carry donkey or elephant logos so you and your family will know whether First Baptist is a “Republican” church or Bethel Baptist is a “Democratic” church.
Nothing could be worse for the prophetic witness of our churches. Once they co-opt themselves to a particular political cause, their voices will be muted. As with the political parties, they will be tempted to focus on getting their candidates elected, and they will forfeit the right to speak gospel truth to all people, regardless of political consequences. Concurrently, pastors increasingly will be forced to consider the political implications of what they say—and don’t say—from their pulpits.
All this, then, becomes idolatry, reminiscent of the sin of the Children of Israel when they clamored for an earthly, political king. They placed their trust in government power, not the Lord. Columnist Cal Thomas addressed this spiritual problem in 1992, near the end of the first Bush administration. He chastised fellow conservative Christians for placing their faith in the political system and attempting to legislate their concerns rather than trusting in God and seeking to transform America through the persuasive power of unadorned faith.
Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard. This column was reprinted with permission.
Coordinator of Fellowship Southwest, an intentionally ecumenical, multicultural, multiracial Cooperative Baptist Fellowship network, and a member of Good Faith Media’s strategic advisory board for news and opinion.