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FIRST-PERSON: HR 235: ending an absurdity


EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–Most American school kids have read Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery.” It pictures a village where, once a year, the residents gather to randomly choose one of their own for stoning. This time around, it’s poor Mrs. Hutchinson. Why do they do it? It’s just tradition, though they can’t remember why it started.

Of course, the teachers assigned us this reading so we would search our own culture for absurd, toxic practices and then address them. Well, I think I’ve found one.

Under U.S. law originally proposed by Sen. Lyndon Johnson, the Internal Revenue Service will “stone” a church if it explicitly endorses or opposes a political candidate. No, the church isn’t destroyed, but it takes a hit, losing its tax exemption. But why?

A growing number of congressmen are asking that very question and are rallying around legislation to correct this absurdity, HR 235. Called the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act, the bill pries the state’s paws off the pulpit. (Actually, it pries these paws off the conservative pulpit; the liberal pulpit has enjoyed a de facto exemption from the beginning.)

So what is wrong with this tax policy? First, it presumes to say what makes for a proper sermon. How the state thinks it knows this better than the church is a puzzle. Seminaries rather than political science departments and law schools provide sermon training, and good seminaries teach her men to use pointed illustration and application, not generalization and obfuscation. Sermons are about more than shepherds and centurions, oil lamps and tunics.

Second, the IRS is reinforcing the woeful impression that church is only a devotional center and not also a base for cultural reformation. Many in government cherish whatever insulation they can gain from the church’s meek submission to a pious, sacred/secular distinction, one which Martin Luther debunked four centuries ago.

Third, it ignores a great tradition of naming names. Of course, most preachers in biblical times and world history were not situated in democracies, where they could support one candidate over another. Still, we can note that, in dicey times, they addressed governmental particulars, including personalities. Surely, the burden of proof lies upon bureaucrats and accommodating clergy who insist that the church mumble generalities at election time.

By current IRS standards, the Bible’s prophetic voice can be politically illicit. I suppose it’s always been that way. Herod didn’t appreciate John the Baptist calling him an adulterer (Luke 3:19) and Jesus calling him a fox (Luke 13:32). But do American politicians really want to play the role of Herod? I’m not saying that they are killing preachers, but they are trying to kill some edgy preaching, the sort that would call a Pharaoh, a Jezebel and even a David to task personally.

In 1800, John Mitchell Mason anonymously published a sermon titled, “The Voice of Warning to Christians: The Ensuing Election of a President of the United States.” In it, Mason said, “I dread the election of Mr. Jefferson, because I believe him to be a confirmed infidel” — and he then went on to prove it. What sort of raw embarrassment of a preacher was this John Mitchell Mason? Merely the founder of what would become Union Theological Seminary, first provost of Columbia College (now University) and later president of Dickinson College.

Stinging from this sort of rhetoric, Jefferson wrote his (in)famous “wall of separation” letter in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist pastors. The new president wanted to wall off the opinions of his ecclesiastical detractors, but he knew how to couch his pettiness in grand, though unconstitutional, language. (Union University professor Greg Thornbury has written a fine account of Jefferson’s retaliatory maneuver; see link below).

Jefferson’s ministerial defenders were just as adamant. Connecticut pastor Stanley Griswold preached a celebratory sermon, “Overcoming Evil with Good,” on the occasion of Jefferson’s election. His take on the matter was rosy: “Give me leave on this occasion particularly to point you to Thomas Jefferson as a laudable example of that magnanimous and peaceable conduct which I have recommended to you in this discourse, and which is so peculiarly necessary to be put in practice at the present juncture.”

That’s the way they talked back then. And, at times, that’s the way some of them got into hot water — and the way some of them hurt their churches. But that was the congregation’s business, not the government’s.

Speaking of congregational business, some would say that politics is not the business of the proper church. To those, John Mitchell Mason had this to say:

“No, I am not deceived: they are Christian lips which plead that ‘Religion has nothing to do with politics’…. Where did you learn this maxim? The [B]ible is full of directions for your behaviour as citizens. It is plain, pointed, awful in its injunctions on rulers and ruled as such…. You are commanded ‘in all your ways to acknowledge him’ (Prov. 3:3). In every thing, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, to let your requests be made known unto God’ (Phil. 4:6), ‘And whatsoever ye do, in word or deed, to do all in the name of the Lord Jesus’ (Col. 3:17). Yet religion has nothing to do with politics! Most astonishing!”

Oh, the government will let churches circle the political arena, addressing issues rather than personalities, distributing voting records and such. What it cannot stand is a Nathan marching right up to the adulterous king and accusing, “You are the man!” What the church, in turn, should not stand is the government conceit that it can penalize such speech while proclaiming itself defender of the biblical sermon.
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Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church. To access the article by Union University professor Greg Thornbury, go to http://www.uu.edu/centers/christld/academicforum/faculty/article.cfm?ID=39.

    About the Author

  • Mark Coppenger