The pulpit is not for politicking

Nicholas G. Hahn III
The Detroit News

When Republicans convened in Cleveland last week to write the Grand Old Party’s agenda, many expected more than a few swipes at the Internal Revenue Service. Ask those conservative groups who were targeted by the IRS for more on that.

But when it comes to tax reform, the call to end a ban on pulpit politicking is one unholy proposal.

In a section of the party’s platform, Republicans say they believe “the IRS, is constitutionally prohibited from policing or censoring speech based on religious convictions or beliefs, and therefore we urge the repeal of the Johnson Amendment.”

That 1954 law limits the political activity of churches, synagogues, or other tax-exempt organizations. The collection basket is not a campaign coffer, and the altar call is not a political rally.

Some pastors don’t like restrictions on what they preach, as the IRS has to determine the tax-exempt status of an organization based upon its content. And while it’s probably not the best idea to let a Washington bureaucrat scrutinize sermons, religious leaders should know better than to advocate for a piece of legislation or endorse a candidate.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was asked “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” He responded, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

This answer didn’t only endorse secular authority, as is commonly supposed. Instead, Jesus designated roles in public life for clerics and lay people.

Pastors who politick from the pulpit leave almost no room for prayer, and offer the faithful little more than what politicians already do. Perhaps in a last-ditch effort to stay relevant amid the rise of “nones,” or religiously unaffiliated, pastors seem to confuse their priorities.

Some evangelicals might learn from Billy Graham’s example. When the pastor to presidents was asked to join Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in 1979, he refused. “We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left,” Graham said. That didn’t do much to change Falwell’s mind, nor the path his son would take.

In Donald Trump’s convention speech Thursday, the Republican nominee pledged to repeal the Johnson Amendment and reportedly called Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. to say as much. “He thinks it is going to be a revolution in the Christian world,” Falwell said.

But a spiritual revolution doesn’t begin at the ballot box.

Twitter: @NGHahn3