Pulpit Freedom Sunday: Politics and Provocation

Do you want me to tell you who to vote for on November 6? Sorry. I'm not going to do it.

After 20 years of service in the same church, I share a level of mutual respect and trust with members of my congregation calling on my opinion as a regular part of conversation. However, there are some questions that I will not answer, endorsements of candidates among them. My refusal to endorse a candidate is not because of my disinterest in politics, but because of my respect for the integrity of religion generally and the pulpit specifically. A church pulpit is the nexus of Christian beliefs and contemporary issues. The pulpit's authority is compromised if those who stand in it and preach from it claim a divine authority for their endorsements of candidates. Such a commendation from a sacred desk trivializes other comments made there.

Let me tell you what I do. I stand on the pulpit of my church every Sunday and talk about the challenges we face as a nation and how faith can guide us in our thoughts and actions. I call on members of our congregation to demand that our elected leaders work together to find real solutions to major problems. But never will I even hint that there is a divine right of leadership in our community or that fidelity to any political agenda can serve as a litmus test for genuine faith. Our church is comprised of members of the Republican and Democratic parties, Tea Party advocates, and people so sick of political divides that they will not vote. I respect the members of my congregation to make their own choices in elections. And, because of my interest in protecting the integrity of the pulpit, I will ask my fellow clergy to stop allowing themselves to be used as a political weapon by turning their pulpits into political stumps.

I share the same concerns related to elections and churches with pastors across the country. Unfortunately, not all of my colleagues agree with me. Ignoring the First Amendment's protections of religious freedom that have allowed faith to flourish in this country, some members of the clergy are participating in an event called "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," organized by the so-called Alliance Defending Freedom. Their goal is to tear down the prohibition barring clergy from making endorsements from the pulpit. It's an in-your-face approach to religion-based campaigning that dares the IRS to challenge them. These people ignore both the damage partisanship in the pulpit does to the gospel and the legal reality that the prohibition of political partisanship in the pulpit is settled law that has been tested and ruled on by the courts.

This is not the first time for this intentional violation of election law, and I have long been a vocal critic of it. In past election cycles, I circulated a pledge signed by hundreds of clergy, to keep politics out of the pulpit.

The clergy signing our pledge are people devout in their own faiths, who respect their congregants' right to make their own judgments about which candidate to support. They refuse even to imply that a person is not a good Christian if that person does not agree with their political preferences. The "pulpit freedom Sunday" participants, on the other hand, seem eager to dismantle the boundaries between religion and government so as to impose their own way of thinking on not only members of their congregations, but on all Americans. These members of the clergy seem to have no confidence in their own ability to provide their congregants a moral grounding sufficient to choose the "right" path.

Let us be clear about motives. Clergy endorsing candidates from the pulpit are trying to provoke a legal fight, not convey a spiritual truth. I am certain the ban on endorsements from the pulpit is constitutional. However, even if it didn't exist - if the courts did away with it tomorrow - it would do nothing to change my belief that clergy diminish their standing and damage their faith when they use their pulpits to further a political candidate. Similarly, just look at the corrupting influence that has resulted from the ever increasing intermingling of corporate interests and politics where all too often, self-interest has trumped national interest.

Our founders gave us a precious gift in their drafting of the First Amendment. I will not stand idly or quietly by as other try to destroy it and change the nature of faith.