Pulpit Freedom Sunday Endorsements Spark Debate

Credit: New York Times / Monica Almeida[/caption]

This Sunday, an event is going to take place that is designed to alter the ideas of Americans regarding the First Amendment, the presidential candidates, and the Internal Revenue Service.

A group called the Alliance for Defending Freedom (ADF) is sponsoring Pulpit Freedom Day and it has occurred every year since 2008. Behind the 2012 effort is Pastor Jim Garlow of Skyline Wesleyan Church in suburban San Diego and the target is the Johnson Amendment.

Passed in 1954, the Johnson Amendment, named after then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, was an addition to the US tax code in which tax exempt and non-profit organizations were thereby not permitted to: “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements) any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” The objective of the participants is to formally protest the Johnson Amendment, provoke a lawsuit, and settle the issue of politicking in church once and for all, with the expectation that the Johnson Amendment could be struck down.

According to Garlow, religious freedom was lost in 1954 with the passage of the Johnson Amendment:

“Attorneys feel this is unconstitutional, but in 58 years they have not been able to get it to court. So pastors are rising up October 7, probably around 1,500 pastors or more, and intentionally exercising biblical authority and their constitutional rights based on the First Amendment and define this regulation called the Johnson Amendment. The hope is it will provoke the IRS to take us to court. There’s 2,200 Christian attorneys allied together – the Alliance for Defending Freedom – they’re prepared to defend us pro bono . . . as we once again reclaim freedom in the pulpit. No government intrusion in the pulpit.”

The controversial element will be the Pulpit Freedom Sunday endorsements. According to ADF’s senior legal counsel, Erik Stanley, the pastors will “preach sermons that will talk about the candidates running for office,” then “make a specific recommendation,” and send a recording of each sermon to the IRS.

At the New Republic, Amy Sullivan sees the actions as nakedly partisan, “If an audit of churches by the IRS provides fuel for the charge that the Obama administration is waging a war on religion, then all the better.”

Not all Christians are supportive of the initiative. Writing at Patheos, a pan-religious forum, Pastor Tim Suttle opposes Pulpit Freedom Sunday, not on the grounds that clergy should not have political convictions, but because it is disruptive to the real purpose of church:

“If I stood up and endorsed a candidate in my church during a sermon, it would cause terrible division, would make those who disagree feel unwelcome and leave us all more confused and divided than when we came. It’s called [sic] sewing the seeds of discord and it is not what worship should be about. The pastor’s job is not to prop up some politician nor is it to encourage their congregations to put their trust in any political candidate or party.”

The spirit of the Johnson Amendment is ambiguous and begs the question, where does the church end and the state begin? Does the Johnson Amendment prohibit a minister from ever mentioning a potentially divisive issue such as abortion? Garlow makes a valid point that churches have used the pulpit to advocate for independence, the abolition of slavery, and civil rights. However, what Garlow is advocating with Pulpit Freedom Sunday is different. Rather than preaching for or against contemporary issues such as abortion, gay marriage, or the HHS mandate, he is arguing for partisanship.

The Alliance for Defending Freedom may succeed in its venture. A 2009 ruling from the US District Court of Minnesota said that the IRS no longer has the staff to investigate places of worship. It’s possible that sermons supporting Mitt Romney, attacking President Obama, and vice versa will not even draw the ire of the IRS.

Pulpit Freedom Sunday has the potential to open up useful discussions about the First Amendment. However, when gridlock and partisanship dominate discussion, the wisdom of endorsements from an intimate and trusted place such as the pulpit may be another matter.