Sunday, October 2nd was Pulpit Freedom Sunday, an initiative sponsored by the Alliance Defense Fund to encourage religious leaders to speak about political candidates and elections from the pulpit (see blog[dot]speakupmovement[dot]org/church/churches-and-politics/pastors-gearing-up-for-pulpit-freedom-sunday-oct-2-2011/). Pulpit Freedom Sunday is part of the ADF's larger Pulpit Initiative, started in 2008 as an effort to have the Johnson Amendment declared unconstitutional.
The Pulpit Initiative opposes the 1954 Johnson amendment which prohibits 501(c)(3) organizations from participating or intervening in political campaigns for public office. Church contributions to political campaigns, as well as public statements on behalf of a church made for or against candidates, are considered violations of the Internal Revenue Code and can result in loss of tax-exempt status. (See here for more details.)
The Pulpit Initiative website condemns the Johnson amendment as an "unjust and unconstitutional law" that allegedly silences churches. It insists that its efforts are not intended to turn churches into "political machines", but to "restore" the rights of religious leaders to speak publicly about matters pertaining to Scripture, including politics. According to its FAQ page, ADF plans to legally represent churches or pastors under investigation by the IRS for "preaching biblical Truth" in support of or in opposition to candidates (see adfwebadmin[dot]com/userfiles/file/Pulpit%20Freedom%20Initiative%20FAQ%20v6.pdf)
The initiative had enjoyed the support of Religious Right leaders since its inception, and this year is no different. Right-wing Christian religious leaders such as Jim Garlow, Ruben Diaz, and Bishop Harry Jackson have provided content for the website in favor of the initiative. Glenn Beck and his guests spoke positively of the initiative on the September 27th edition of GBTV (see www[dot]glennbeck[dot]com/2011/09/27/what-is-the-johnson-amendment/). In another conversation with Jim Garlow and Richard Land, Glenn Beck also spoke supportively of the initiative.
The Pulpit Initiative is troubling because of its implications for church-state separation. Despite the ADF's claims, I fear that overturning the Johnson amendment could easily lead to churches becoming "political machines," given the authority that some churches command over their congregants. To boot, clergy speaking for or against candidates run the risk of intimidating some of their congregants, as Warren Throckmorton warns.
Agreeding to refrain from supporting or opposing political candidates is the trade-off for churchs' tax-exempt status. This is not about curtailing clergymembers' freedom of speech, since members of the clergy are free to speak publicly about social issues and countless other topics. Rather, this is about separation of church and state.
To learn more about Pulpit Freedom Sunday and the Pulpit Initiative, visit speakupmovement[dot]org
For additional news and commentary, visit the following links.
Iowa Independent: Clergy warned about 'Pulpit Freedom Sunday'
Wall of Separation: Pulpit Perversion Sunday: The Religious Right's Partisan Scheme to Politicize Churches
Right Wing Watch: Beck Endorses "Pulpit Initiative" Effort to Challenge IRS
Los Angeles Times: Preachers, Choose Your Words Wisely
Warren Throckmorton at Crosswalk: Pulpit Freedom Sunday: Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should