Sunday, October 5, 2014

Pulpit Freedom Sunday

Today, Oct. 5, is being observed by some conservative Protestant pastors and churches as “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” (PFS). Since 2008, a number of preachers across the country have participated in PFS, giving partisan political endorsements in their sermons.
These pastors are willing to defy the law in order to defend their right to freedom of speech—and to promote political positions and candidates that they think are biblically correct.

Since 1954, tax-exempt religious organizations have been barred from endorsing parties or candidates. The new U.S. tax code enacted then is sometimes referred to as the Johnson Amendment, as it was first proposed by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson.
The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) was founded in 1994 by Bill Bright, James Dobson, D. James Kennedy, and Donald Wildmon (not to be confused with Thinking Friend Donald Wideman), among a number of other conservative Christian leaders.
In 2012, the ADF changed its name to Alliance Defending Freedom, but both before and after the name change ADF has been a leader among Christians organizations opposing the Johnson Amendment and advocating PFS as “a strategic litigation plan.”
Through “tactical lawsuits” against the IRS, the ADF says they are seeking “to restore the right of each pastor to speak scriptural Truth from the pulpit about moral, social, and governmental issues.”
They eagerly desire for each pastor to be able to speak freely from the pulpit “without fear of losing his [sic] church’s tax-exempt status.” (These quotes are from this website.)
The ADF claims the Johnson Amendment is an unconstitutional restriction of legitimate Christian discourse and a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech.
The same website gives the names and location of the 1,225 churches across the nation that observed PFS last year, down considerably from the 1,620 churches that participated in 2012. That decrease was partly due to a lawsuit.
In November 2012 the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a lawsuit over conservative preachers openly defying those restrictions. (View that document here.)
That lawsuit was settled in July of this year. The FFRF claimed victory, as the IRS has now instituted a protocol for investigating tax-exempt churches and religious organizations involved in political activity.
This has not deterred the ADF from actively promoting PFS—and some 1,500 churches are expected to participate today.
Matt Barber, vice president of Liberty Counsel Action (LCA), spoke about PFS at the June 2014 Faith & Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority" conference in Washington, D.C.
Thousands of pastors, Barber noted, have disobeyed the IRS law in acts of civil disobedience on Pulpit Freedom Sunday. LCA, headed by Mathew Staver, dean of Liberty University School of Law, wants the IRS to take punitive action so that they can challenge the law in courts.
Presently, all 50 states and the District of Columbia exempt churches from paying property tax. Moreover, donations to churches are tax-deductible. In stark contrast to ADF, LCA and other such groups, though, there are others who are asking if such tax exemptions are actually contrary to separation of church and state. That may well be the case.
So what is really at stake on this Pulpit Freedom Sunday is not the freedom to speak, but the freedom not to pay taxes, which may be questioned under the best of conditions. At present, if churches are willing to give up their tax exempt status, their pastors are completely freely to say what they want from their pulpits.
That is probably sufficient freedom—for today and for every Sunday.


  1. The precendent of political use of the pulpit goes back pre-Revolution and during the Revolution, and a simple reading of the 1st Amendment really does sound like the issue is to keep the Federal Government out of religion altogether - not the other way around. In fact, this is not a partisan or polar issue - both left and right, Democrat and Republican do partisan endorsements from the pulpit (including Baptists on both sides - just look at Jimmy Carter's Gathering of Baptists (as an American Baptist pastor attending put it, "The Democrat Baptist Convention)). The Johnson Amendment should go.

    That said, the Church/ religion should focus on service to the Heavenly King/ entity and service to humanity. But part of that service to humanity may involve addressing evil/ tyrannical politics (or governments) as a means of justice - Church history sees this all the way back to the beginning. (I have never seen a condemnation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's anti-Nazi pronouncements from the pulpit.) But what ever the response of churches/ religious groups, Christians should seriously take the Biblical mandate to pray for those in governing authority. I try do this daily.

    Obviously, the 1st Amendment only applies to the United States of America. Each country has its own laws/ authority - many who prohibit any freedom of religion, and oppose Christianity completely.

  2. While churches have a right and a responsibility to address issues germane to their beliefs, I believe that full open political advocacy would be bad for both church and state. On the church side, it will put churches in the political crosshairs in a most destructive way, as churches would be seen as just another form of political party, and subject to the kinds of attacks of personal destruction that play such a fierce role in political debate. On the state side, churches would become one more forum for dark money to swirl in unaccountable campaigning, undermining what is left of responsible debate in our increasingly purchased elections. For make no mistake about it, if churches are free to function as tax exempt political parties without the usual accountability of political parties, then political parties will become tax exempt churches to dodge what is left of America's efforts to prevent corruption in politics. Or even more likely, the political parties will co-opt existing churches, and use them as fronts.

    Think what it would be like if the negative political ads we all endure were actually direct political attacks of one church on another. Churches that want to become political soap boxes should be careful of what they wish for, for they could end up with exactly what they are campaigning for. Becoming foot soldiers for the kingdoms of this world is not the way for churches to further the Kingdom of God.

    This is not just a theoretical problem. Look at the history of the world, wherever politics and religion have merged, the result has almost always been sectarian conflict. The oldest story handed down in my family is a memory of the day my great-great grandfather Dempsey got into a discussion of "the troubles" back in Ireland with his Catholic neighbor. Poor Paddy did not understand the truth of the Anglican position on the subject, so my great-great grandfather chased poor Paddy around the house trying to explain the truth, while my great-great grandmother gave him a stout whack with a broom every time he ran by the back door. Such was the state of political Christianity in nineteenth century London, Ontario, Canada.

  3. Rethinking a little, and wanted to add another blurb, but Craig's first statement captures my real concern. The Manhattan Declaration is a commitment to put lives on the line to defend common, practical, traditional beliefs when facing an assault by government and society. It has be signed by Archbishops, Metropolitans, Bishops, and other key Christian leaders, clergy, and laity across Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Evangelical Christendom within the USA. Sometimes it is partisan, but not out of partisanship. Beliefs can trump status quo.

    In my family story, lives were on the line, and many were lost, as were the lands by the Society of Jesus and the King.

    A liberal, Christian friend has called for the elimination of at least 5 of the Bill of Rights (including the 1st) because they grant far too much freedom to the citizenry, Church, and the States.

  4. Local Thinking Friend Eric Dollard has again sent meaty comments to be posted here:

    I am not particularly concerned about what pastors say from their pulpits, political or otherwise, as long as they do not condone violence or hatred. Most of the pastors who use the pulpit to endorse candidates are preaching to their choirs anyway; I doubt that they change very many votes, if any. Plus they are speaking for themselves, not necessarily their congregations.

    "A much more serious problem would arise, however, if congregations began giving money to candidates, which would constitute political endorsements by entities exempt from taxes under section 501(c)(3).

    As for political campaign contributions, only human beings as individuals should be allowed to contribute to the campaigns of candidates or to political parties. (Obviously, I strongly disagree with the Citizens United decision by the SCOTUS.) Organizations such as corporations, labor unions, political action committees, political advocacy organizations, and churches should not be making such contributions. This is partly to reduce the corruption in our political process, but also because some people, who have either contributed or belong to those organizations, may not support the candidacies of those to whom the organizations have made contributions.

    I belong to a labor union as a member emeritus. If my union decided to contribute to the political campaign of Ted Cruz, for example, I would leave the union. But, on the other hand, the union should not contribute to candidates whom I do support. And neither should any corporation, church, or other organization. (Legally registered political parties would be an exception to this, but only individuals should be allowed to contribute to political parties.)

  5. A Thinking Friend in Louisiana wrote, "I am sorry you would use pulpit freedom Sunday as an excuse to attack conservatism. Why do you still use labels to identify your friends and your enemies?"

    Here is part of my response to that TF and former colleague:

    And I do not consider "conservative" to be a label--at least no more than most adjectives. I use the term as descriptive word, not as a pejorative one. Many conservatives use that term with pride. For example, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is a major political event each year, and those who plan it and those who speak there are happy to be known as conservatives.

    The same is true for many in the Christian world. For example, Conservapedia, which was launched on November 21, 2006, to be, in their words, "a conservative, family-friendly Wiki encyclopedia." It was founded by teacher and attorney Andrew Schlafly, who is Phyllis Schlafly's son. Conservapedia explains, "Conservative Christianity is a term used to describe identified Christians who tend to follow conservative values, and which stands in contrast to liberal Christianity."

  6. A "liberal" Thinking Friend who now lives in Wisconsin points out that political activity in churches is not just something found in conservative churches:

    "Living in Detroit we discovered there isn't even a thin line between church and state. I would be asked to pray at a campaign breakfast every so often in the basement of a church."

  7. A local Thinking Friend wrote, "If complete freedom will allow clergy to talk about any subject I wonder if this will change the number of people who show up for services."

    My guess is that in most churches that have a diverse membership, partisan preaching would tend to alienate some members and decrease attendance.

  8. My son Keith wrote, "I assume the difference between 2012 and later was the presidential election then."

    I took this as a reference to the drop in the number of churches participating in Pulpit Freedom Sunday. I had attributed that drop to the lawsuit by the Freedom From Religious Foundation, but Keith is probably right: it likely had more to do with 2012 being election year. And in spite of the lawsuit being in FFRF's favor, the number of participating churches was up this year, which is a significant mid-term election year.

  9. I believe churches are already responsible for a good deal of the polarization in American society, and Pulpit Freedom Sunday does nothing to reconcile. When fundamentalist churches become involved in partisanship, they project this black-and-white, good-versus-evil worldview upon the political process. Compromise becomes unacceptable. I know liberal churches are just as partisan, but I don't believe they are as effective at organizing their members around candidates (because the black and white mindset isn't as ingrained). Nonetheless, this conflict--how do we be political (because we must be to speak truth to power), yet not be partisan--is something I struggle with.