Friday, October 15, 2010

Don’t ban politics from the pulpit

For the third year, the Alliance Defense Fund is encouraging religious organizations to challenge government censorship of pulpit speech as elections approach.

In September, ADF called on pastors to preach about the moral qualifications of candidates seeking office on a day designated as “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” Participating clergy were instructed to mail their sermons to the Internal Revenue Service.

The hope: Prompt the IRS to file a lawsuit, which then would result in existing legislation being contested.
Almost all faith groups are exempt from federal income taxes. According to the IRS, under section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code, organizations with tax-exempt status are restricted in how much political and legislative activities they may conduct.

The Revenue Act of 1954 contains an amendment — added by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson — stating that charitable organizations may not “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distribution of statements), any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.”
Some argue that tax exemption is a government subsidy, opening the door to some federal oversight.

The ADF disagrees.

“Churches are exempt from taxation under the principle that there is no surer way to destroy religion than to begin taxing it,” ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley said. “As the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, the power to tax involves the power to destroy.”

The Johnson amendment is being broadly interpreted to mean that ministers may not speak on politics from the pulpit. The consequence: Many pastors are self-censoring their sermons to avoid the risk of losing the church’s tax-exempt status.

As a pastor, I prefer not politicking from the pulpit because it shifts focus from the gospel, which is the primary purpose of preaching. However, placing limits on the pulpit is not only a violation of free speech and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, but it also has troubling repercussions for all faith groups.

The fear among religious leaders is that pulpit censorship could escalate to a restriction on speaking on social issues that spill over into politics. As an example, in 2008 the LDS Church’s support of California’s Proposition 8 spurred calls for the religion to lose its tax-exempt status.

For evangelicals, the Bible is a guidebook for daily living. Christians are expected to base their decisions, including social and political convictions, on biblical principles. A pulpit sermon has its basis in the Scriptures and thus sometimes deals with moral and social ideology. The preacher’s goal is not to persuade parishioners to adopt his or her personal views or to sway political votes, but rather to present the Bible’s position in hopes that congregants will align their beliefs with biblical precepts.

The IRS has yet to take the ADF’s bait. While pastors are not permitted to oppose or endorse a candidate from the pulpit, we still have the right to preach sound biblical principles and to urge congregants to become involved in the political process. Ultimately, people of faith should be allowed to vote their own convictions.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Spiritual leaders should speak about their own struggles

Bishop Eddie Long, pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., is the latest minister to find himself caught up in a scandal. According to CNN, four young men filed civil lawsuits accusing Long of coercing them into sexual relationships, allegations he has denied in a statement issued through his attorney.

Over the past few decades, many spiritual leaders have fallen from grace. Usually, this scatters the flock and destroys the ministry. There is no justification for a spiritual leader abusing his or her authority, but the church should be able to withstand even the worst of scandals.

In many churches, the pastor is placed on a pedestal and deemed to be perfect. This perception of righteousness is sometimes created by the pastor.

Some clergy believe the only way to lead people of faith is to make them think they are sinless. While a minister should refrain from doing things in the presence of others that may cause them to stumble, they should never give the impression that they are without sin. I often remind worshippers that, while I am a pastor, I am still human and therefore susceptible to sin. This is not meant to be an excuse for my shortcomings, but I believe I have a responsibility to make it clear to my congregation that I struggle with some of the same sins so their faith is not shaken when I fall short.

There are times when the perception of perfection is created by the parishioners without the preacher’s help.

Some people of faith believe that God only calls those who have achieved a higher standard of righteousness. One need only study the lives of some of the greatest characters of the Bible to see this is not the case: Moses had murdered a man, yet God choose him as his prophet to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. King David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband murdered to cover up his sin, yet he is referred to in the Bible as “a man after God’s own heart.”

In the Old Testament, God made provisions for the priests to atone for their own sins before they made sacrifices on behalf of the people. It is clear that God knew the priests would sin. The New Testament tells us, “There is none righteous, no, not one. For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”

Second, the presumption is that a preacher only delivers sermons on issues he or she has overcome. God uses the minister to speak to his people. The pastor is flawed and therefore there are times when the message is meant for the pulpit as well as the pew. Furthermore, a sermon is supposed to have its basis in the Scriptures, so it is not hypocritical for a preacher to speak on issues he or she is still struggling with; it is God’s word not the minister’s.

Our legal system demands that we presume Long did not commit these despicable acts until proven otherwise. If the accusations are indeed true, God will forgive Long but some of his membership may not. I hope that no matter the outcome, New Birth, a church that has done a lot of good over the years, will continue to thrive.