We've moved!

Social Icons

twitterfacebooklinkedinrss feed

Monday, May 17, 2010

Politics in the Pulpit: New Madville Times Poll!

The good Dr. Blanchard finds my weekend post on Gordon Howie's call for pastors to break the law (or at least sacrifice their churches' tax-exempt status to entreat divine intervention in Howie's doomed candidacy) "interesting, thoughtful, serious, and wrong." The good professor writes a response of at least equivalent worth.

Given this very interesting question of politics from the pulpit, I offer the latest Madville Times poll here in the right sidebar. Forget which candidate is asking for it: very simply, I want to know if you want your pastor or rabbi or other spiritual leader to endorse political candidates from the pulpit.

Put it in personal terms: picture yourself in church. Pastor steps up for the sermon. First words out of his or her mouth, "Today I'm going to tell you why you should vote for ___." How would you feel? What would you say to the pastor afterwards? What would you talk about over coffee in the fellowship hall?

Back to Dr. Blanchard: his effort to equate Martin Luther King to local collared yokels telling parishioners to vote for Gordon fails. King's advocacy of civil disobedience to fight racial discrimination was not "political campaign activity" of the sort forbidden to churches and other non-profits by the IRS rules Gordon Howie wants pastors to violate.

But Dr. Blanchard agrees that Gordon Howie wants pastors to break the law. Dr. Blanchard contends something bigger, that the targeted law is unconstitutional, in that it restricts what the pastor says in his constitutionally protected sermon. I'm inclined to argue allowing endorsements from the pulpit is still an inappropriate use of a pulpit funded in part by tax breaks given to the non-profit organization that makes that pulpit available for sermons.

I could go the other direction though: I could accept Dr. Blanchard's argument, repeal the IRS rules against political campaign intervention, and allow every non-profit organization to use its resources to endorse candidates and advocate for ballot initiatives. Let Jon Lauck solicit donations for his boss Senator Thune's campaign fund at his MAAC Chautauqua event tonight. Let MAAC solicit Democratic campaign volunteers and sublease their office as local Dems HQ this fall (since Dems are the big arts supporters around here, anyway!). Let the Children's Home Society hand out Daugaard flyers at their fundraisers.

Anyone have a problem with that? Is there any problem with letting tax-exempt organizations take advantage of their government-subsidized status to advocate for who serves in government?

Update 10:42 CDT: More knowledge from the north: citing James Madison and Roger Williams, Dr. Newquist says keep that wall of separation high.


  1. The real problem is in allowing any tax exempt organizations to exist. Income is income whether it comes into some rabid myth monger religionist or to a political hack.

    Perhaps the rate should be a flat low rate, but no organization that gets "contributions" should be exempt.

  2. Douglas-

    While I share your concerns about tax exemption of religious organizations, removal of such exemptions would be a double edged sword. For example charitable organizations also enjoy tax exempt status and benefit greatly due to that status (gifts to offset taxes).

    I'm not sure that trading off tax exempt status for all organization would be worth the losses incurred by strictly charitable organization.

  3. This is kind of like the recent Supreme Court decision to allow corporations to lobby/buy politicians, isn't it?

  4. I've been blessed to always have pastors who tell us that we should vote, but not tell us who or what to vote for or against. I think any pastor who tells his/her congregation how they should vote is abusing the power of the authority God has granted them with.

    And I doubt most congregations would all agree on a lot of issues and candidates. In my church, we have people on the left and the right and the middle. So it's better for a pastor to let them make up their own minds on how to vote.

  5. Cory: Perhaps both of us have a "knack for writing something interesting, thoughtful, serious, and wrong." We can't both be right most of the time, but we can both be wrong some of the time. I was hoping you'd say you loved me too. The heart is a lonely hunter.

    MLKJr used his church to stage a political movement. You are right that that is not the same thing as campaigning for a particular candidate, but it is hardly a separation of church and politics! No, Gordon Howie, like him or not, is no MLK. But politicians you like get the same constitutional rights as those you don't.

    I am not recommending that churches endorse candidates. I think that will not happen as a general rule, as it would split congregations.

    It's one thing to say that a tax exempt organization cannot contribute money to a political campaign, though that is at question after Citizens United. There are ways to deal with this. A charity organization that wishes to engage in political action might have to keep separate accounts. Those who contribute to the charity side get a tax deduction; those who contribute to the political action committee do not.

    It is another thing to say that tax exempt organizations cannot make statements in favor of one candidate or another. Free speech is free speech. Government controlling the content of a sermon is repugnant to the logic of the First Amendment.

    While churches enjoy extra protection under the free exercise clause, I would indeed extend the same free speech protections to all nonprofit organizations.

  6. [Ken, I'm a married man. ;-)]

    Might there be a difference between separation of church and state and separation of church and politics? I wodner that because of the way you, Ken, phrased the MLK argument above. Indeed, MLK did politics, in my favorite sense of the word, the work of figuring out how we live together in community. In that sense, churches are an integral part of politics. But did MLK ever endorse a candidate from the pulpit?

    The difference between cash contributions and speech contributions may not be as wide as you suggest. The sermon is the central speech act of the church, supported by the tithing (and synod subsidies) of all believers and the non-tax-interference of the rest of us. The pastor also enjoys a special authority when speaking from the pulpit (see Romero in El Salvador). Allowing a pastor to co-opt that authority to advocate for a specific candidate feels... inappropriate.

    Constitutionally, I can see a problem where we give a tax break to organizations that keep their mouths shut but not to those that engage in political speech. Perhaps we need to revisit that code, take political activity out of it, and just say that either every non-profit pays taxes or none do.


Comments are closed, as this portion of the Madville Times is in archive mode. You can join the discussion of current issues at MadvilleTimes.com.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.