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FIRST-PERSON: HR 235: freeing the pulpit

WASHINGTON (BP)–All citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs, must be free to voice any opinion about anything or anyone to their governmental representatives. Moreover, they should even be able to voice any concern about the representatives themselves in public without fear of retribution by the government.

James Madison understood this fact of political science when he penned Federalist Ten. Fearing that certain “factions” (or special interests) might seek to restrict free speech from those who held opposite opinions, he saw freedom of speech as the antidote for the “mortal diseases” which had destroyed other countries.

The one indispensable ingredient for this to work: liberty.

Madison was no political novice. He realized that elections were often “carried along” by the “vicious arts” of “unworthy candidates.” To combat such people from being elected to office, he believed that “the suffrages [rights] of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.” Unless, of course, the representatives themselves grew to fear the scrutiny of the people so much so that they passed laws to protect themselves from the close watch of the electorate.

This is precisely the issue at hand over 200 years later in the very same republic Madison helped form.

Tucked away in the Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3) is an amendment introduced by then-Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1954. Under penalty of prosecution and the forfeiture of a tax-exempt status, the statute requires churches and some religious organizations to “abstain from participating or intervening, directly or indirectly, in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.” “Issue discussions” divorced from political candidates are permitted so long as specific issues are not linked to particular candidates who hold certain positions.

Regardless of the senator’s intentions, the regulation fails to take into account that ideas alone do not make policy. People make policy. To dictate to the church the boundaries of what can and cannot be said from the pulpit places the state over the church in matters of religion. This is expressly forbidden by the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion.”

HR 235, a bill currently working its way through Congress, seeks to lift the ban, unshackle pastors and church leaders, and restrict government to its rightful and constitutional position.

Precisely because the pulpit possesses great power to influence large numbers of people, political operatives have targeted its content for censure. To forbid churches from forthrightly declaring that a certain candidate does not support the teaching of the church is to forbid the church, in many ways, to have a voice at all in the public square.

There are, to be sure, inherent dangers for any church to voice public support of any man for anything — political or otherwise (Psalm 118:8,9). The best of men are men at best, and orthodox Christian teaching warns against trusting in man because of what is “in man” (Jeremiah 17:9; John 2:25). The Gospel of Jesus Christ is owned by no nation or politician – conservative or liberal. Yet, should not, at least in some way, a church’s theology and moral teachings gravitate toward those in public life who support those values?

During last year’s hearings for the bill, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy testified: “We do not want to see houses of worship identified more by the political parties they support than by the theology or the moral values that they proclaim.” Taken to its logical conclusion, Gaddy’s proposition is untenable. Behind every public policy lies non-neutral ideas which seek to rule and dominate the political landscape for a certain and defined end. He fails to admit the truth: Public policy is, in many ways, practical theology.

Forcing the church into silence through legal means is but the first step toward the same procedure used by tyrannical governments to advance their agenda unopposed. In muzzling the church’s prophetic voice, the state acts as though it fears that the power of national government is limited by another Sovereign who rules with absolute authority and power.

Though history teaches that the church can thrive without the benefit of a democratic republic and tax exemption, the question is and remains: Can the republic thrive without the influence of the church?
Douglas Baker is a writer who lives and works in Washington, D.C.

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