Yesterday was Pulpit Freedom Sunday, a project of the Alliance Defense Fund that encourages religious leaders to speak about politics to their congregations. The event is intended as a protest against the 1954 Johnson Amendment to the federal tax code. The Johnson Amendment states that entities who are exempt from federal income tax cannot:
"Participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of – or in opposition to – any candidate for public office."
For more than 50 years the IRS has had the right to review the contents of religious leaders' sermons to see whether they are adhering to this law. During that time it has sent out letters threatening to rescind the tax-exempt status of hundreds of churches. The law is, as the Alliance Defense Fund and plenty of religious leaders have pointed out, blatantly unconstitutional.
And so in 2008, pastors began to fight back. In that year 33 pastors from 22 different states participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday. They made specific recommendations about voting for candidates based on their adherence to Scriptural readings and then brought their sermons to the attention of the IRS, goading the agency into investigating so they could prompt a constitutional challenge. In 2009, more than 80 pastors participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, and in 2010, nearly 100 pastors participated. According to the initiative's website, "As of this date, none of the participating churches have had their tax exemption revoked – nor have any received penalties from the IRS for what was said during their sermons."
Like many of our laws restricting speech surrounding political campaigns, the Johnson amendment seems pretty nonsensical to the average observer. We all know that religious leaders of every political stripe talk about politics from the pulpit. From Obama's suggested High Holidays messages for the nation's rabbis to the Catholic Church's threats to withhold communion from politicians who vote to liberalize abortion laws to the Mormon Church's support of Proposition 8 in California. You'd have to be blind to think that it is possible for our religious institutions to remain on the political sidelines. (It's not clear why that would be desirable either. Religious movements have played an important role in our greatest moments of political progress from abolition to civil rights.)
Leaving aside the constitutional questions, what is the point of drawing the line at letting religious leaders endorse candidates? As Terry Mattingly rightly points out at the GetReligion blog today, the New York Times entirely missed the fact that this is where the line is drawn, suggesting that this is somehow a debate about whether pastors can talk about politics at all. The policy only leads to a lot of winking and nodding. Okay, folks, we're for gay marriage. We can't tell you who to vote for but you can go home and find out who is for gay marriage and vote that way. Got it?
This approach, in addition to being silly, means that religious leaders must reduce all of politics to issues and not comment on the men and women who are participating in it. The question of a politician's character cannot be on the table. But in principle, our clergy should be uniquely qualified to talk about the vices and virtues of particular politicians not just the way they vote on particular hot-button questions.
In the same way that laws restricting spending on campaigns have not exactly taken the factor of money out of politics, so laws about restricting religious leaders from endorsing candidates have not made churches any less of a factor in politics. I hope that the pastors who preached politics yesterday have proved their point.