Samuel Beckett, one of my favorite writers, had a lot to say about human nature and the inevitable repetition of inane life experiences. In Waiting for Godot, Krapp’s Last Tape and Endgame, the protagonists in Beckett’s most famous pieces are static creatures of habit; each repeats the same stale cycle of events, expecting a variation in circumstance. But invariably, each play ends almost exactly where it begins.
Beckett passed away in 1989. I keep thinking, however, that if he were still alive and writing, he would have loved to pen a piece on the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF). Each year, on the last Sunday of September, the ADF sponsors “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” The event is political theatre wherein Religious Right leaders urge pastors to use their sermons to endorse or oppose candidates from the pulpit in flagrant violation of federal tax law.
Since 2008, the ADF has been sponsoring these special Sundays as a way to challenge the section of the Internal Revenue Service Code that prohibits tax-exempt organizations, including houses of worship, from engaging in partisan political activities. This year, Pulpit Freedom Sunday is scheduled for Sept. 26, and ADF attorney Erik Stanley is hopeful that the stunt will yield greater success than it has in years past.
According to The Florida Baptist Witness, Stanley recently told 200 Florida pastors that the IRS is “very adept” at keeping the battle over pulpit partisanship out of court. But he hopes that this year a federal court will step in and “remove the power from the IRS to censor sermons.”
While Stanley insists that “this is not about turning churches into political action committees [or] promoting any particular candidate or political party,” he was steadfast in his support of preachers willing to break the law over politicking since “votes translates into actions that affect people.”
Come on, Erik, let’s be honest. The ADF and its Religious Right allies want to forge conservative churches into a disciplined electoral machine and dominate political life in as many states as possible. And it’s no secret that the move is partisan. Every minister who has participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday has endorsed a Republican candidate or opposed the Democrat.
The ADF consistently attempts to narrowly frame the debate over church politicking as an issue of free speech versus government censorship. But we must push beyond the carefully crafted rhetoric of the Religious Right and focus on the broader issue at hand. Campaigning for or against a specific candidate for public office is a misuse of tax-exempt church resources and church personnel.
While Stanley and his colleagues have argued that tax exemption for churches is a constitutional right, it’s not. Tax exemption is a privilege that is accompanied by the responsibility of abiding by federal tax law.
Federal tax law is not overly restrictive. Pastors are permitted to speak out about ballot referenda and political issues (gay rights, abortion, war, etc.); they are permitted to sponsor voter registration drives and sponsor non-partisan candidate forums. Houses of worship are merely prohibited from using their federally subsidized resources to endorse or denigrate a candidate for public office.
The majority of Americans agree with the law. In September of 2008, LifeWay Research, an organization affiliated with the Southern Baptists, released a survey on pastor involvement in politics. The Pew Forum has sponsored similar studies, and the results have consistently proved that the American public still believes in the wall of separation between church and state.
“There is a longstanding and publicly affirmed view that the pulpit is not the place for politics, particularly endorsements,” said Ed Stetzer, LifeWay’s executive director. “Americans overwhelmingly want pastors to stick to faith and not political endorsements.”
The last two Pulpit Freedom Sundays have been markedly unsuccessful; only a handful of clergy participated. Most pastors don’t want to talk about political candidates, and most Americans don’t go to church to hear about them.
For the third year in a row, Americans United for Separation of Church and State is gearing up to defend the Constitution and the clear provisions of the tax code against this already all too tired tradition of the ADF.
I believe that in his heart of hearts, the ADF’s Stanley must be echoing the sentiment expressed by Hamm, the aged chess master in Beckett’s Endgame: “It’s time it ended…and yet I hesitate, I hesitate to end.”
Sometimes, it’s tough to admit that you’ve been checkmated, but when your king has been cornered by the Constitution, it’s time to bow out gracefully and admit defeat.