Feature

Religion: Should pastors endorse candidates?

The Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative legal group, wants to smash the historic walls between church and state.

When the Rev. Wiley Drake addressed his congregation in Buena Park, Calif., this past Sunday, he delivered a bracing message. “According to my Bible and in my opinion,” he declared, “there is no way in the world a Christian can vote for Barack Hussein Obama.” In 21 other states that day, said Peter Slevin in The Washington Post, more than 30 preachers made similar pronouncements. Behind them was the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative legal group that wants to smash historic walls between church and state. Their target is a 1954 federal statute that prohibits “political endorsements by tax-exempt houses of worship.” By voicing their views in those houses about this year’s presidential election, the pastors hope to force a constitutional test case on the ban and overturn it. “The IRS says I cannot talk about politics,” said evangelical minister Gus Booth, who endorsed John McCain at his church in Warroad, Minn. “The Constitution says I can.”

The good reverend is confused, said The New York Times in an editorial. He and his allies are indeed free to tell their flocks whom to vote for. But once preachers turn their churches into secular campaign offices, they can no longer claim to be religious organizations, exempt from property and income taxes that other citizens pay. Imagine what would happen if the Supreme Court overturned the present ban on political endorsements from the pulpit, said Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times. “Wealthy ideologues” could make huge, tax-free contributions to churches to tout their favored political candidates or positions. “Ambitious pastors” might begin soliciting such political donations, and churches would morph into powerful political machines. “Separation of church and state as we know it would be in shreds.”

That’s a silly—and utterly hysterical—scenario, said Alliance Defense Fund counsel Erik Stanley in the Los Angeles Times. “For 166 years of American history, pastors spoke freely and even endorsed or opposed candidates from the pulpit.” Democracy did not collapse as a result. Indeed, some preachers continue to take highly political positions, said Cal Thomas in Townhall.com, but the media isn’t alarmed when their messages are leftist, and voiced by the likes of Jesse Jackson and Jeremiah Wright. Still, even though I’m a conservative Christian myself, I think it would be perilous for preachers to get too involved in secular politics. Religion properly concerns itself with the soul and matters that transcend elections. When preachers are tempted by power, they “pollute a far superior and life-changing message.”

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