October 24, 2014

Guest Post: Pulpit Freedom Sunday: Do We Really Think This Is a Good Idea?

Note from CM: Randy Thompson is one of our faithful readers and commenters. He and his wife Jill host and minister to pastors and church workers at Forest Haven, a retreat in Bradford, NH. At the FH blog, Randy writes regular words of encouragement to those dealing with the stresses of ministry, and we have featured some of his posts here.

Today, he contributes an opinion piece about last Sunday’s “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

* * *

Pulpit Freedom Sunday: Do We Really Think This Is a Good Idea?
by Randy Thompson

How is it, exactly, that Pulpit Freedom Sunday gives preachers freedom they don’t have? More specifically, what, exactly, will it give preachers freedom to say? To exercise this supposed freedom is to end up doing the exact opposite of its supposed intent. Pulpit Freedom Sunday isn’t for Christ, it’s for the IRS. Presumably, some pastors are happily and boldly endorsing candidates to their hearts content for no other reason than to annoy the IRS, with the hope that maybe the IRS will respond to the challenge, resulting in a court case that will keep lots of lawyers and preachers busy for a long time. And, come to think of it, where do these political endorsements end? Why settle for endorsing Presidential candidates? Why not take a more comprehensive and holistic view and endorse candidates all the way down to village dog catcher?

By seeking freedom to preach politics, preachers are doing so not on the basis of Christ as Lord but in relation to the IRS. It is “for freedom that Christ has set us free,” St. Paul tells us in Galatians, “stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Pulpit Freedom Sunday is an almost Tea Party appeal to Caesar: “For tax exemptions the IRS has set us free; stand firm therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of government regulation.” I worry that Pulpit Freedom Sunday is a Right Wing version of a Hallmark Card holiday.

As to the history behind this issue, well, OK, fair enough. Wily old Lyndon Johnson outmaneuvered political opponents in 1954 by hiding an amendment in a bill to revise the tax code, the intent of which was to sink his political opponents, and, as one writer put it, churches were the collateral damage. Maybe, from a legal perspective, this is a dumb law with a shady past that needs to be changed. Maybe.

But, maybe this sneaky amendment is an example of someone doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Maybe Someone Up There, way cleverer than Lyndon Johnson, was at work in this matter, and used it to help preachers stay focused on Christ and not Caesar. Maybe it wasn’t just about putting down McCarthyites in Texas. By putting politics out of bounds to preachers, LBJ inadvertently helped serve the cause of the Kingdom of God by creating a law that reminded preachers whose Kingdom they belonged to. In terms of the Kingdom of God, this Sunday celebration of a (terrific) human political system is a huge, well-intentioned distraction.

Pulpit Freedom Sunday is less about the freedom to preach what you want than it is about avoiding the consequences of preaching what you want. Supporters want the opportunity to support candidates they like, presumably with God’s imprimatur. By doing so, they do indeed show the IRS a thing or two, but they don’t notice that their preaching focus has shifted, and shifted radically. The Jesus they call “Lord” is now linked to a particular candidate.

Regarding this, a bit of history for reflection: In 1972, evangelicals were all abuzz about Richard (“Tricky Dick”) Nixon, who was a friend of Billy Graham’s and, therefore, a special friend of God. (If you’re old enough and grew up in the evangelical world, you will remember this.) What would have happened if evangelical preachers all over the country stood up in their pulpits and endorsed Nixon? “Here is God’s man!” And then, what would have happened a year or two later, when “God’s man” escapes impeachment only by resigning and arrest only through the wise kindness of President Ford? Billy Graham is a godly man, and the very few times his reputation has been tarnished have been when he’s been in close proximity to Nixon. Does anyone remember what happened when they released some of Nixon’s audiotapes a few years ago, and we were treated to some of his anti-Semitic rants, with Graham present in the room with him? Preachers, do you really think it’s a good idea to use your pulpit to publicly support candidates? Are you nuts?!?

Don’t you realize that politicians aren’t fools—that they get where they are because they are masterful manipulators, influencers and connivers? That the can speak eloquently in whatever demographic context in which they find themselves, including churches? That they read people extremely well, and shrewdly discern what people—even Christian people—want? A wise old sociologist used to ask, constantly, “who’s influencing whom?” Are preachers influencing politicians, or are politicians influencing preachers? Are preachers immune from the addictive quality of being near fame and power? Instead of being salt and light, candidate-endorsing churches will become merely a power bloc in Mystery Babylon, squabbling over power, influence, and Caesar’s attention.

Let’s look at this from another direction. Is it really a good idea to support someone with God’s imprimatur who partially supports “godly” causes, but who also partially supports “ungodly” causes? Where do you draw the line here? I completely understand why many conservative people oppose abortion and redefining marriage. But why is it that they’re less finicky about “godly values” when a candidate supports traditional values while at the same time upholding a value system rooted in an ideology like that of Ayn Rand? Why is an atheistic, anti-Christian ideology like hers OK, but an atheistic, anti-Christian ideology like that of Karl Marx not OK? Why is it that Christians are willing to embrace some anti-christs, but not others? And, again, the question, “who’s influencing whom?”

Finally, we need to ask ourselves, “Does the Bible offer us any guidance on church, state and politics?” I believe it does.

During the time of the prophets, for example, Judah’s kings were tempted to enter into alliances with the super powers of the time, Assyria or Egypt. Yet, to the prophets, these alliances with political powers were a sign of unfaithfulness, as Ezekiel makes clear: “Egypt will no longer be a source of confidence for the people of Israel but will be a reminder of their sin in turning to her for help” (Ezekiel 29:16). Isaiah’s words to King Ahaz who sought political and military help from the Assyrians (of all people!) are similar: “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all” (Isaiah 7:9b, cf. 2 Kings 16:7ff). Many Christians are deeply and rightly concerned about the state of our country, but they are repeating the mistakes of these hapless Old Testament kings. They are seeking to fix the world’s problems by relying on the world’s power to do so. We proclaim loudly and often that “Jesus is Lord!” Yet, we act as though nothing spiritually significant or useful can happen without political clout and alliances with shady political characters. Why is it now that Jesus needs Caesar’s help? We have forgotten that we are what Paul called “ambassadors for Christ” and as a result we have gone native and become worldlings.

Or, consider this. What do Jesus’ temptations in the desert tell us, especially his refusal of Satan’s temptation to grab power and rule the world? (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13). The quest for power always ends badly. To grab power leads you, finally, to worshipping Satan and his ways. To endorse candidates in church is to play the political influence game, and playing the political influence game inevitably leads you into playing the power game. What did the often quoted Lord Acton say about power? “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Are churches immune to this maxim?

I’d like to suggest that our Lord Jesus understood power better than we do, and as a result said no to it. Instead of striving for power and influence, he turned his face to Jerusalem and a cross, and was nailed to it. He died in weakness, not strength. He died in shame as an outcast, not as a conqueror. And yet, this helpless one pinned to the cross is the one we call “Lord,” and this weak one is the one who will judge the living and dead.

At that judgment, I want to be found to be like the judge, and to know first-hand the truth of Christ’s blessing of the meek who will inherit the earth. Let the rich and powerful struggle and let the influencers influence. Let nation rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. I, for one, hope and pray that I will be one of those gentle ones, in whom is seen some slight glimmer of the light of the cross, and the Kingdom it represents.

Comments

  1. Faith and politics don’t mix. Any church that enages in Pulpit Freedom Sunday engages in fraud. They are misrepresenting the gospel. As a taxpayer I hope the IRS does go after some of these folks. Becuase basically these fundageliclas are abusing their tax exempt status for political gain. Nuff said….I think more about this I’ll be wound up and unable to sleep. ;-)

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      And if the IRS does go after them, they can admire themselves in the mirror for Suffering Terrible Persecution.

      “When you see the Obamanation of Desolation enthroned in the White House…”

  2. If I want politics on the Sabbath, I’ll stay home and watch “Meet The Press”. Thank you for this post.

  3. I think Pulpit Freedom Sunday is fantastic. It quickly reveals all the churches to avoid like the plague.

  4. So many Christians decry the notion of separation of church and state, but it makes no sense to criticize it. It protects the church. It protects the integrity of the pulpit from politically-minded leadership who would use it to push candidates of their choosing. We are called to proclaim the Gospel. Period. Anything else shames the Office.

  5. Or, soon enough, we’ll have the ‘First Church of the Divine Re-election:’ a tax-exempt super-PAC.

  6. “The quest for power always ends badly.” Amen to that, Randy. And I agree with your entire post. Well-stated.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      “Whether the State can loose and bind
      In Heaven as well as Earth;
      If it be wiser to kill mankind
      Before or after the birth —
      These are matters of high concern
      Where State-kept schoolmen are;
      But Holy State (we have lived to learn)
      Endeth in Holy War.

      “Whether the People be led by the LORD,
      Or lured by the loudest throat;
      If it be quicker to die by the sword
      Or cheaper to die by vote —
      These are things we have dealt with before
      (And they will not rise from their grave)
      For Holy People, however it runs,
      Endeth in wholly Slave.”
      — Rudyard Kipling, “MacDonough’s Song”

  7. “Pulpit Freedom Sunday is less about the freedom to preach what you want than it is about avoiding the consequences of preaching what you want.”

    That’s the key sentence, of course. Preachers are already free (and in our country a freedom guaranteed in our Constitution) to preach whatever they want. They have always been free to preach what they want. This is more like a child throwing a tantrum because they can’t do what they want free of consequences.

    When I think of Christian bravery speaking truth to power, I think of St. John Chrysostom, who did not want to leave Antioch and become patriarch of Constantinople. Yet once in that position, preached truth to those in power who did not want to hear it. As a result, he was deposed, I believe, twice. And the second time, died during his forced march into exile.

    Or I think of St. Maximos the Confessor, who continued to speak and write truth against not only imperial pressure, but against a number of bishops and patriarchs. He lost his tongue and right hand in an effort to keep him from communicating. And though he was vindicated in the sixth ecumenical council, he reposed in exile when it must have seemed that the whole world was against him.

    Endorsing a candidate in an election at the risk of losing your privileged tax-exempt status? That’s not bravery.

    I will also note that, as with the executive branch in general, the IRS merely enforces the tax code as it has been defined by our legislators and clarified in the courts. There are reasons a Christian pastor might choose to break the law for morally exemplary reasons. The civil rights movement in our country is an excellent recent example. This isn’t one of those examples.

    • Matt Purdum says:

      The image of children throwing tantrums caught my attention. Way, way too much of this among Christian “leaders.”

    • Randy Thompson says:

      Thanks for the references to St. John Chrysostom and Maximos the Confessor.

  8. Another attempt at grandstanding….and at pretending that American churches are persecuted. Which they are not. We’ve got a huge martyr complex and no bodies to back it up.

  9. So many of the mainline churches are the Democratic Party at prayer. And so many of the Evangelical churches are the Republican Party at prayer.

    The pulpit ought be the place to put a pox on both their houses and to lift up Jesus Christ and He alone as the answer to what this world needs.

    Politics from the pulpit touting ‘what we do’ as the answer is tantamount to” throwing a drowning man a cannonball”.

    I got that last line from this post: http://www.lightofthemaster.net/apps/blog/cross

  10. It’s simple, if “you” want a preacher or a congregation to endorse a political party or candidate, simply give up your tax exempt status as any other charitable 501(c) 3 organization would be required to do if they did the same thing.

  11. For that matter — insert standard I’m Not a Lawyer Nor a CPA disclaimer here — as I understand it, churches are still perfectly free to talk politics and still retain their nonprofit status; however, they should be incorporated as a nonprofit political group rather than a nonprofit religious group. 501(c)(4) rather than 501(c)(3). If you’re talking more about politics than about religion, you’re not a religious group anyway, so it would be duplicitous to claim tax exemption under a rule that’s about the kind of organization you’re not.

    In other words, the goal of the law is not to stop churches preaching politics, but to stop political groups from masquerading as churches. And, if someone would rather preach politics than religion, face it, they’re a political group.

    (Note, real lawyers or CPAs are welcome to correct me on this.)

  12. After reading the title, I was rather expecting a one-word blog post.

  13. Marcus Johnson says:

    I’d love to comment on this post but, unfortunately, I agree with every comment on here so far, so a comment now would be akin to preaching to the choir. Maybe I just got up too early in the morning; I’ll try to get back on here later. I’m sure by then, someone will try to refute Randy’s article by attempting to equate the contribution of MLK and the civil rights movement to modern-day political endorsements from the pulpit.

    Until then, I’m off to find some TV night snacks so I can watch the vice-presidential debates and get my fat on.

  14. Well, here in NH, there aren’t many of us listening to preachers anyways.

    More to the point, these Pastors are ignoring their role as Apostles. Let me quote from Robert Capon’s “The Mystery of Christ and Why We Don’t Get It.”

    “Ordained persons are not commissioned to do certain things for the church that the rest of the church cannot or does not do. Rather, they are ordained as sacraments, as signs to the church of what the whole church is commissioned to do — namely, bear the apostolic witness to Jesus’ death and resurrection. When I go into the pulpit on Easter Day, for example, I do not go as an expert on the scientific or theological (Ed Note: or political) possibilities of the resurrection. If I do my job correctly, I do not stand up there and tell the congregation that I have studied the subject and have come to this, or that, or any other conclusion about it. Instead, I arrive in the pulpit as the latest in a long line of runners, and I tell them very simply, but very authoritatively, ‘Peter saw him risen…(pant, pant, pant)…and he told me to tell you.’ Do you see? When I preach the Good News, I am first of all an apostle, not a theologian or any other kind of learned person. And accordingly, when I counsel, I consider myself first and foremost and apostle and not anything else. That and that alone is the taproot of my pastoral authenticity as a preacher, or a counselor, or a confessor or even as a husband, father or friend. That and that alone is why I have been ordained.”

  15. “They are seeking to fix the world’s problems by relying on the world’s power to do so. We proclaim loudly and often that ‘Jesus is Lord!’ Yet, we act as though nothing spiritually significant or useful can happen without political clout and alliances with shady political characters. Why is it now that Jesus needs Caesar’s help?”

    As a libertarian I say a hearty “Amen” to the above statement. Religious liberals and conservatives involve themselves in politics to try and accomplish what they think is the will of God. In general religious conservatives want the government to force others into “God’s morality.” In general religious liberals want the government to force others into “God’s compassion.” We libertarians involve ourselves in politics to limit the role of government and preserve every person’s choice to choose right or wrong as God granted in the Garden of Eden.

    The Gospel is the Christian’s means of power to promote morality and compassion, not the government. That means we must persuade people, not force them. It’s always easier to default to government force, but God showed His preferred method by giving us a choice between right and wrong from the very beginning. God could easily force us, but instead He invites us, saves us, and empowers us to choose right over wrong. Government has a limited role; keep us from hurting each other, common defense, common roads, etc. Liberal and/or conservative savior is not on that list.

  16. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Why is an atheistic, anti-Christian ideology like hers OK, but an atheistic, anti-Christian ideology like that of Karl Marx not OK?

    Because Objectivism is Utter Selfishness and Marxism is forced Unselfishness.

    Ayn Rand not only lets me keep all MY goodies, but blesses me getting more and more and more goodies all for ME. Karl Marx wants to take away my goodies.

  17. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    What do Jesus’ temptations in the desert tell us, especially his refusal of Satan’s temptation to grab power and rule the world? (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13). The quest for power always ends badly. To grab power leads you, finally, to worshipping Satan and his ways.

    Over at Wartburg Watch there’s been a lot of back-and-forth recently over the links between Hyper-Calvinists, Dominionists, and the canonization of the Massachusetts Puritans as the Mythic Perfect Godly America.

    • Matt Purdum says:

      With all the buzz about Puritanism the last decade, I can’t get away from the fact that the Puritan definition of a witch is “any elderly widow who owns property coveted by the church.”

    • Randy Thompson says:

      Hmmm.

      The “Mythic, Perfect Godly America”: certainly had no room for Quakers or Baptists, did it?!

  18. Matt Purdum says:

    What are the two most iconic images of Christ? In the manger, and on the cross. These are images of powerlessness. Christ set aside his power as God the Son to become powerless. It’s a postmodern world, people. ALL TRUTH CLAIMS ARE DISGUISED POWER CLAIMS — THAT is what the world believes. The ONLY way our witness will ever be effective is if it does NOT disguise a power grab. Or some other ulterior motive. If your goal is to elect a candidate, sell a book, pass a law, or sign up someone for your church, forget it. Our goal must be love, sharing the Good News, and serving others. Not power. Not running things. Not putting people in jail. Not drawing lines about who gets and doesn’t get a doctor. The renunciation of power must be the prime action of Christianity in the next several decades.

    • (i)What are the two most iconic images of Christ? In the manger, and on the cross. These are images of powerlessness./(i)

      Briliiant!

    • +1

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      We saw something similar with the RCC from John XXIII on; when the Church renounced the political power it had held since Constantine (including when the Pope was the actual feudal lord of central Italy), it actually became more influential in the world. Look at John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

    • Thank you for writing this–very helpful.

    • How about a third iconic image of Chirst: the tomb (empty).

  19. Right on, Randy Thompson

    What part of keeping the Sabbath holy is included in Pulpit Freedom Sunday? Where does it say anywhere in the bible one Sabbath is open for a free-for-all with political activism?

    Since the elections began full swing-I’ve received daily emails about the horrors of Obama vs the wonders of Romney from my former pastor’s wife. She’s on a mission and, from what I can see, it’s not about Jesus-but she thinks it is.

    This stumping spills over as subtle remarks or inferences in some of her husband’s sermons-he doesn’t need a Pulpit Freedom Sunday to express his political views-it’s all wrapped up neatly in a ‘A Christian/true blue American votes…” package.

    If I want to hear campaign rhetoric, I’ll reconnect cable and turn on the television. Sheeesh…I simply want to find a church to learn about/worship/ rest in the presence of God with other believers and set aside my worldly concerns for a day and not be inundated with lockstep thinking, especially in regards to politics-there’s six other days for that.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Since Election Month began full swing — I’ve been waking up to Paid Political Announcement after Paid Political Announcement after Paid Political Announcement on my radio instead of commercials. The morning drive-time guy says they’re crowding out ALL the other advertisers.

      The only exception (starting this week) has been the occasional movie ad for Atlas Shrugged. That’s either significant or someone in their ad sales department has a sense of humor.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        It just got worse. I was doing a music video on YouTube and they prefaced it with a commercial.

        A Paid Political Announcement commercial.

        I’m outa here. Anyone know how to score a one-way ticket to Ponyville?

  20. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

    Last week (or maybe it was the week before, Stephen Colbert (who is a devout Roman Catholic) did an interview on Fresh Air that brought up some of the Pulpit Freedom Sunday stuff. I thought some of his observations were very profound. Here are some quotes from it:

    I think they should be able to do it, but I also think that it’s a very dangerous thing to do — not just for our politics, but it’s also dangerous for the faith of people who are exercising that right. Because they seem to think that it’s a one-way membrane — that they’ll get religion into our politics. But they’re ignoring the fact that politics will come right back through that gate onto our religion.

    And if you actually have a political party that is this religion, or a political party that is that religion, I think that’s a short road to the kind of religious civil war — whether or not it’s actually an armed war — but religious civil war that we fled in Europe. America has avoided that. And I think our politics are so horrible these days. … Why anyone would want that horrible tar on something as fragile as faith is beyond me.

    • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

      Meh… Blockquote didn’t work. The latter two paragraph’s are Colbert’s words.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      op cit the Kipling poem earlier in this thread.

      Written as a song, the chorus (a prophetic epitaph for a certain 20th Century Political cult) goes:

      “Once there was The People — terror gave it birth;
      Once there was The People — and it made a Hell of earth;
      Earth arose and crushed it — Listen, O Ye Slain —
      Once there was The People — May it NEVER be Again!”

  21. Tigger23505 says:

    Seems to me that Pulpit freedom is intended to no more nor less than reset the clock to the pre-1954 rules. The Johnson amendment is the specific item from the 1954 tax code revision. Prior to that date there was no IRS oversight of churches involvement in politics.

    For me the issue is one of whether or not giving the IRS a role in what can be said in the pulpit treads very close to the prohibition on free exercise of religion.
    First Amendment
    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or _prohibiting_the_free_exercise_ thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    • Randy Thompson says:

      You make a fair point.

      However, if a pastor observed Pulpit Freedom Sunday, he or she was preaching more to the IRS than to the congregation.

      I’m less concerned here about the First Amendment than I am about the Gospel of Jesus Christ being identified with either right wing or left wing ideologies. I don’t want to see the “image of the invisible God” covered over with campaign posters (Colossians 1:15). Even worse, I don’t want people to see the image of the invisible God through the distorted lens of either Karl Marx or Ayn Rand.

  22. As if they haven’t seen all this stuff every day from Uncle Pat or the professional hatemongers on AFA or the pundits on WND or Christian Post or some other outrage factory . The concrete has been hardening all week. So why should they spend Sunday in church listening to a local political amateur in the pulpit?

    Forty years ago, a third of Americans considered themselves “born-again”. A Pew Research Forum study this week found a substantial decline in those identifying themselves as born-again or evangelical. Almost four decades on, the fastest religious demographic is those claiming no religious affiliation at all. And a super-majority of these people grew up having some church affiliation. They’re gone now. In view of the above, might we see one substantial explanation for this decline?

  23. The message last Sunday:

    Be involved in the process – not voting is a vote
    Vote Biblical values – sanctity of human life – justice for all – peace on earth (shalom) – moral qualities
    Stand together – choose the better right

    What do you think?

    • I suspect many churches preaching this messege have the underlying assumption that they have a particular candidate in mind that all “true believers” would vote for……

      I find this assumption to be repugnant.

      Lets go back to the Gospel without Americanizing it, and let God speak to us.

      • not to say that you area repugnant, Jerry, just that I’ve heard a lot of “If you are truly Christian, there is only one candidate you can vote for” in church.

  24. AMEN! I wish this sermon could be preached across the land from every pulpit – with a call for repentance on its heels. Lord have mercy on us for trying to mix your Church with worldly power. Have mercy on us for placing our trust in the lesser power of top-down power rather than Your Spirit and its power to really transform the hearts and minds of wayward humanity.

  25. Can I suggest that instead of celebrating Pulpit Freedom Sunday Churches instead participate in “Election Day Communion”? You can read about it at the national site (http://electiondaycommunion.org/) but the idea is that Christian’s should demonstrate that the most important thing on Election day is not earthly Politics and our adherence to various ideologies but the the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Let’s face it – if the most important thing to you is to vote Republican or vote Democratic and make sure that your guy wins – that seems to be the textbook definition of idolatry.

    The national site isn’t trying to get out the vote or dissuade people from voting – it is just encouraging Christian’s to reaffirm that their Christianity is more important than their politics. I’m hosting an election day communion in Modesto CA (http://www.ekklesiamodesto.com/2012/10/election-day-communion/) and liberals, conservatives, and non-participants alike are all welcome at the table if they confess Jesus Christ as Lord.

  26. Christiane says:

    I love that in my Church, no pressure is put on us to violate our consciences . . .
    we do have a ‘guide’ that helps, but you can’t find in it any portion that commands who you vote for, or what political party you must support or reject . . . it just states, very clearly and in detail, the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, and one reading of it is enough to remind us that ‘personalities’ aren’t an appropriate guide for voting, but issues are, and they are SO complex that it is quite possible to have two practicing Catholics of good will to sit down and debate one another and each one have an opposite view from the other. I have heard of some ministers telling their congregations who to vote for, but this year, for many reasons, that may backfire.

    http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/documents/rc_pc_justpeace_doc_20060526_compendio-dott-soc_en.html

  27. David Alves says:

    Randy, great post. You must keep writing. I’d like to see something here about Genghis Khan’s spirituality. Your prose is refreshing.