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FIRST-PERSON — Political Speech Protection Act: taking the muzzle off churches

McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–Who made the following statement?

“Nowhere has the principle of the separation of Church and state become a matter of such general, almost dogmatic significance as in American Christianity, and nowhere, on the other hand, is the participation of the Churches in the political, social, economic and cultural events of public life so active and so influential as in this country where there is no state Church.”

Was it:

1. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

2. Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition.

3. James Dunn, former executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.

Give up? It was a bit of a trick question, because it is none of the above. The aforementioned quote was uttered in 1930 by German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

If Bonhoeffer were alive today, which he is not — he was put to death in a German concentration camp for daring to speak out against the Nazi regime — would he make the same observation? Perhaps not. Much has changed in America in the seven decades since Bonhoeffer rendered his observation. So much so that historian Christopher Lasch concluded in his 1995 book, “The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy,” that American liberal elites have succeeded in removing religion from public recognition and debate.

A variety of factors have contributed to the marginalization of the church’s influence on public life in America. Among them was Congress’ decision in 1954 to write into the 501 (c)(3) section of the Internal Revenue Code granting tax-exempt status to public charities the proviso that the organization must not “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distribution of statements), any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.”

Until recently, Congress did not elaborate on that language, and as a result there has been much confusion and debate as to exactly what a church can and cannot do in the realm of political activity. Many pastors and church leaders have come to believe that speaking out on any topic of a political nature would jeopardize their tax-exempt status.

As moral issues such as homosexuality and abortion have become increasingly politicized, so has the reticence of many churches to speak out on them. Even the distribution of voter guides during campaigns has come under fire by watchdog groups dedicated to making sure that churches do not violate the 501 (c)(3) provision.

While the threat of the loss of a tax-exempt status is not the same as the threat of prison or death, it nevertheless has had the effect of muzzling a voice that has contributed to the moral strength of America — the voice of the church.

Rep. Walter Jones, R.-N.C., is the chief sponsor of legislation that will go a long way in loosening the gag on America’s religious organizations. The “Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act” (H.R. 2357) would amend the Internal Revenue Code to lift the total ban on political activities by churches. Jones’ proposal would require any participation by a church or any other organization in a political campaign not to be a “substantial part” of its overall activities.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Victorian England’s best-known Baptist preacher once commented, “I often hear it said, ‘do not bring religion into politics.’ This is precisely where it ought to be brought and set there in the face of all men as on a candlestick.” With currently 89 cosponsors, H.R. 2357 has been ignited. For the good of America, and for the sake of the church, may it increase into a blaze and become legislation.
Boggs’ column appears each Friday in Baptist Press.

    About the Author

  • Kelly Boggs