October 1, 2006

In Favor of HR235, the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 10:28 pm

The L.A. Times has a front-page, above the fold, right-hand column article headlined “Pastors Guiding Voters to GOP.” A quote:

At a recent rally in Pennsylvania, Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson told a crowd of 3,000 that it would be “downright frightening” if Republicans lost control of Congress. If there’s a good Christian on the ballot, he said, failing to vote “would be a sin.”

This statement is unremarkable for Dobson et al. The recent Values Voters Summit had much more of the same on display. Of course, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton are good Christians, but Dobson’s audience understands that “good Christian” is code for “our kind of Christian”, a fundamentalist, conservative Republican Christian. Dobson’s Family Research Council, along with the rest of the organizations represented at the Values Voter Conference, has been a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican party for years.

The implication here that failing to vote for a Republican is a sin is not only untrue, but an obstacle to Christian witness. Because of course there’s Mark Foley. And Tom Delay and Jack Abramoff. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and “aggressive interrogation” techniques. Bob Ney. Ken Lay. And then there’s Katrina and Michael Brown.

My point isn’t that Democrats are somehow holier than Republicans, although Republicans have been far out-scandaling Democrats of late. My point is that both Republicans and Democrats are condemned by their membership in the human race to scandal. We are all sinners. This describes not our actions, but our condition, and applies to members of both political parties.

Which puts any religious leader in a pretty awkward situation when they get in bed with a political party. Dobson, Perkins et al may feel they are now power players, getting access to top administration figures, having the administration trot out to speak at every event they host. But in return, they have lost their independent prophetic voice. Of course they will condemn Mark Foley’s actions, but I am sure they won’t criticize Dennis Hastert for knowing of Foley’s behavior for months without taking action. They can’t, because to do so would put at risk their position of power in the Republican party, and they have spent years acquiring that power. They will rationalize away their silence, telling themselves that fighting abortion and gay marriage is too important to get sidetracked over Hastert’s inaction regarding a House pedophile.

Dobson’s decision to become a politician instead of a prophet can only hurt his own moral authority. The more he acts like just another special interest group lobbyist trading favors with politicians, the less he is seen as a Christian voice calling the nation to follow Christ. Which is why I have slowly come around to favoring the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act (HR 235).

All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena has made public the investigation by the IRS into whether All Saints violated restrictions on partisan activity by churches. Some, like Mark D. Roberts, have argued that All Saints did in fact violate IRS regulations because the sermon in question, criticizing the Iraq War, did not criticize John Kerry and George Bush equally. But how could it? If Rev. Regas was to preach about war and peace, it would have been an amazing act of contortionism to criticize John Kerry to the same extent as the Bush administration. Granted, the sermon was given a few days before the election, but when else would a liberal “peace and justice” church speak out about peace and justice? To muzzle this kind of outspokenness would hamper the ability of the church to be prophetic just as much as their sell-out to the Republicans has done for the conservatives.

But isn’t All Saints just getting in bed with the Democrats in the same way the Values Voters crowd is in bed with the Republicans? My limited acquaintance with members and clergy at All Saints leads me to believe they are not, and that if the Democrats deserved criticism it would be forthcoming just as quickly as it was directed towards the Republicans. This is the crucial difference — maintaining loyalty to the Gospel regardless of where it leads. After all, we are to be in the world, but not of it. It appears to me that All Saints is truly in, but not of, while the Family Research Council is not only in, but of as well.

Allowing churches to endorse political candidates will do far more harm to churches that take advantage of that freedom than it will to our democracy. The consequences for conservative churches that allow themselves to be co-opted by the Republican party will be the eventual loss of their prophetic voice and their moral authority. That wll be bad for them, but I don’t see why we need to pass laws to protect churches from themselves. There is a free market for religion, and I have faith that the silent majority of Christians will look for authentic spirituality and spurn overtly political churches. And it’s not as if the current IRS regulations have prevented the growth of the Republican Christian Church in the US, as demonstrated by the Values Voters Conference. It could even be that allowing churches to endorse candidates will reverse this trend as the true partisan nature of many conservative churches becomes apparent and alienates their parishoners.

If this Act does pass, liberal churches need to be very careful not to give in to the temptation to be co-opted by the Democratic Party. But the down-side is far greater, so the Values Voters Conference would suggest, on the right. So let the Republicans and their Christian Right supporters pass the Act. Why should we save them from themselves?

8 Comments

  1. “We are all sinners. This describes not our actions, but our condition, and applies to members of both political parties.

    Which puts any religious leader in a pretty awkward situation when they get in bed with a political party.”

    Exactly.

    Comment by Jacke — October 2, 2006 @ 12:19 am

  2. I think that the voices of religious conscience is compromised whenever it throws its lot with any part of the political establishment. Only by remaining as independent voices of dissent against the Empire can the prophetic voice remain honest and pure. That means in my view that churches should not align themselves with political parties, and that includes th notion that liberal churches lose their credibility when they align themselves directly with the candidates and politicians of the Democratic Party.

    I agree with you that All Saints church wasn’t doing that. They were talking about issues, not candidates. It is worth pointing out that while the All Saints sermon that got them investigated by the IRS was about the evils of the war in Iraq, John Kerry was not running an antiwar campaign that year! Aside from the fact that he had voted for the war, it is also the case that during his party’s convention, his security personal tore down antiwar banners that were put up, and his platform took an oddly noncommital position, saying said that it didn’t matter if one was for the war or against it. The prophetic voices of peace needed to be free to criticize Kerry over that.

    The point is that when a prophetic voice remains independent of the political parties, it is liberated by serving as an independent voice that can criticize candidates and politicians from both of the ruling parties of the political establishment. And in any case, I don’t want a church telling me how to vote; I want it to remain a critical voice for justice and peace, but I want to remain free to decide how to express my support for that social justice mission, and I want my church to remain independent lest it lose its credibility when the powers that it supports end up taking positions or acting in ways that a prophetic voice should be criticizing.

    An analogy that comes to mind is that it is kind of like the idea of Consumer Reports taking advertising. If it were to do so, its integrity and independence is lost. I would prefer that churches stay removed from the political forces that jockey for power to govern the Empire, and thus they can freely criticize the Empire’s transgressions against social justice from the outside; they can serve as an pressure group from outside the corrupting halls of power and wealth.

    Comment by Mystical Seeker — October 2, 2006 @ 8:17 am

  3. Mystical Seeker –

    Yes, I agree. My only point regarding HR235 is that we don’t need the government to enforce this independence, since violating it hurts the church in question, not our democracy, and the church will reap the consequences.

    Comment by Bob — October 2, 2006 @ 8:39 am

  4. I can’t support this bill — the effect will be to let this nascent Christian left movement jump right into bed with the Democratic Party.

    The bottom line is, tax exempt churches are accepting free money from the government. Almost every other entity in the US has to pay taxes, but the government gives churches a pass. Being a 501(c)(3) makes perfect sense for many groups that focus on providing services for the homeless and things like that. But if a church is going to act in an unrestricted way (which I think is perfectly defensible in many cases), it should accept the burden of paying taxes. Render unto Caesar and all that.

    Incidentally, I found Fr Regas’ sermon offensive, even as an extremely liberal Christian who voted for Kerry. His certainty about just how Jesus would vote on a variety of complicated issues mirrors almost exactly the Religious Right’s arrogance about other issues. I’m at a loss for why so many folks on the left are defending this behavior when we criticize the Right for it.

    Comment by Chris T. — October 2, 2006 @ 9:36 am

  5. I have never liked pastors discussing politics directly. It always makes me uncomfortable, even if I agree with it.

    I’m right-of-center, and I can’t stand Dobson, and Pat Robertson, or Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and anybody else like them. I don’t mind a minister going into politics, but the way these men use the Gospel to advance themselves is nauseating.

    The principles that lead to political ideas deserve the focus, but churches should encourage people to come to their own decisions based on the principles. Two people understand that the haves should help the have-nots…one thinks the government should handle it, while the other takes a couple hundred dollars worth of food and clothes to a homeless shelter. But pastors shouldn’t try to make those decisions for them.

    My biggest worry is that we might actually benefit from the restriction on political speech in churches. What might be the result if we don’t? How many well meaning members will be led astray?

    Comment by Elmo — October 2, 2006 @ 11:20 am

  6. Interesting take on the bill. Just wanted to bring to your attention the lastest happenings on our site. We senta letter to Speaker Hastert and the religious right leaders (Dobson, Falwell, Robertson, and Perkins) calling for the resignation of anyone who knew about Foley’s behavior. Keep up the good work.

    Comment by Faithful Democrats — October 2, 2006 @ 3:35 pm

  7. Chris –

    Political parties and PACs are tax-exempt just like 501(c)(3)s, so we are already subsidizing political speech, we’re just saying that we won’t subsidize political speech by churches. I would favor a restriction on churches contributing to political organizations, because then the campaign finance laws would become unenforceable. But I see no logical reason why the government should allow tax-exempt poltical speech in some cases, but not in others.

    As for the Christian left getting in bed with the Democratic party — this is kind of a “we need the government to save us from ourselves” kind of argument. It would be horrible if Christian progressives were co-opted by Democrats, but that could happen anyway. So let’s just not.

    As for the sermon in question, some will find it distasteful, some won’t. But is there a state interest in preventing clergy from giving sermons we don’t like? There is a “church interest”, but I don’t see the state interest.

    I don’t think lifting the restriction would change much if anything. Does anyone doubt who the hard-core cnservative ministers would endorse? Does anyone doubt who All Saints would endorse, or at least would have in 2004? Most of our churches would avoid endorsing candidates because if they did, their parishoners would revolt. I can easily imagine the ELCA issuing a guideline for its pastors to avoid being overtly political.

    And for the record, I wouldn’t attend a church that endorsed candidates from the pulpit.

    Comment by Bob — October 2, 2006 @ 7:32 pm

  8. Bob –

    I totally agree with your comment. I would add that it’s ironic that a conservative would employ a “we need the government to save us from ourselves” argument, because we usually take the personal responsibility route.

    That being said, I think we should make the churches responsible for their behavior, and not allow these overly politicized pastors and preachers (on both sides) hide behind the government. Give them the rope and see if they hang themselves.

    And, if I weren’t a youth minister at my church, I would make a statement similar to yours about not attending a church that endorsed candidates from the pulpit (even if I agree). But I would be more than content to speak to my pastor about my feelings.

    Comment by Elmo — October 3, 2006 @ 12:44 pm

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