It’s a classic example of taking one step forward and two steps back. The U.S. House of Representatives struck a blow for campaign finance reform this past week by passing the Shays- Meehan bill. This bill, if it becomes law, will go a long way towards restricting soft money and the political influence that money can buy. That’s the step forward.
Meanwhile, just as the House is shutting down one avenue for political corruption, it is considering another proposal that would open up a whole new thoroughfare for campaign abuses.
Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., has introduced a bill dubbed the “Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act.” This bill proposes removing restrictions on congregations from engaging in partisan politics.
Under the current law, churches and other non-profits are afforded tax exempt status in order to pursue ministries that promote the common good. The law which provides this exemption plainly states that partisan politics are prohibited. Under Jones’ proposal, however, houses of worship would be allowed to engage fully and openly in partisan campaigns.
Space will not allow detailing all the reasons why this is a bad idea. Suffice it to say if the bill passes, there will be fewer unbelievers in Congress than in a proverbial foxhole. It may be entertaining at first, watching candidates contort themselves in all sorts of religious posturing and pious talk. But the gradual distortion of our democratic process into debates over who speaks for God will not be entertaining. It will just be sad.
The idea that a particular candidate or party can speak for God on policy issues is absurd. Imagine walking into church on a Sunday morning and finding the pulpit draped with a banner that reads, “Vote for Bob–He’s God’s Man!” Our political and spiritual life is just not that simple.
God is perfect, but we are not. Even a person of great faith continues to participate in the flawed reality of human existence. To put it in evangelical terms, we remain sinners even after we get saved. Consequently, no one can lay claim to a perfect understanding of God’s will for a particular political campaign or national issue. Those who claim otherwise will lie about other things as well.
This bill will likely affect communities of faith. We already struggle with church and state separation, even with the current law in place. If that hedge is taken down, congregations will be tempted to exchange their authentic identity as houses of worship for the momentary glory of a political campaign.
Communities of faith already play an important role in America’s political process. We perform many practical functions such as organizing voter registration or sponsoring non-partisan candidate forums. We provide spiritual guidance such as calling on candidates to conduct their campaigns in a civil manner. And we make our political system more just by supporting the politically powerless.
But seeking a candidate or a party that speaks for God is a spiritual and political sand castle. It distracts from the positive benefits faith communities bring to our common lives. It is two steps back from our primary and legitimate calling in the world.
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.