Churches And Partisan Politics: Recipe For Division

Imagine this: Your church's finance committee chair presents the annual budget to your congregation next October. Nineteen percent of the budget is lumped into a new line item called "political action." In response to questions about the item the finance committee says it will go to support Republican candidates in the next election.

Or this. The first Sunday in November your pastor uses his sermon time to stump for the local Democratic congressman, an incumbent mired in a tough race against an aggressive challenger.

Or this. You drive past your church one fall afternoon and see that the church sign has been surrounded with dozens of red, white and blue placards announcing Broadbottom for City Council. Upon closer inspection the fine print reads, "Paid for by Open Pockets Baptist Church for Billy Bob Broadbottom."

Probably these will not happen. But they could if our representatives in Washington pass House Resolution 2357.

HR 2357, also known as "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act," removes a provision in the Internal Revenue Service Code that prevents churches and other tax-exempt nonprofit organizations from engaging in partisan political activities such as endorsing political candidates. It would allow these groups to use up to 20 percent of their budgets on partisan, political activities.

Since 1954 churches and other nonprofit groups have been banned from partisan, political activities if they wanted to retain their tax-exempt status.

Proponents of the legislation say it is an attempt to restore free speech to groups whose rights of free speech have been restricted by the IRS rule.

That's a dolled-up, politically correct argument, say opponents of HR 2357. Erase the patina of free speech and what you have is a bunch of right-wing political types who are still fuming over the recent loss of tax-exempt status for the Christian Coalition, whose "voter guides" distributed in churches are thinly veiled campaign brochures for right-wing candidates.

Here are a few reasons HR 2357 is bad law.

The IRS ban on participation in partisan politics by tax-exempt nonprofits clearly and appropriately limits the political speech and activities of these organizations. It does not, however, restrict the speech and activities of individuals who are members of them. Individuals can write letters, make phone calls, march in parades and make speeches, as long as they do not use church stationery, church buildings, church offerings and church-sponsored events to do them. If a pastor wants to take off election Tuesday to hand out voter guides outside a polling place, that is his business. If he wants to do it on Sunday morning in the church foyer, that is a misuse of the pastoral office. The current IRS rule does not violate anyone's free speech. Certain types of speech in certain places, such as yelling "fire" in a crowded theater, have always had restrictions.

Second, the removal of limits on partisan political activities by tax-exempt groups will divide churches along lines of political ideology. Congregations that make Christ their unifying center can amass a fellowship that embraces a diversity of political loyalties. Its agenda, however practical and relevant, is linked to the eternal. Congregations centered on the election of the new senator, councilman or president pursue an agenda bound by time and limited in scope. They have a unity, but it has nothing to do with God's eternal kingdom.

Third, this new legislation leaves churches and pastors open to bizarre pressures. We are a nation awash in special interests, and we bring those interests and their tool, power, into our churches. Pastors could find themselves forced to resist the not-so-subtle effort of Mr. Yellow Dog Democrat to get some face time in the pulpit for his candidate prior to the November election. Laity could come to the realization that Dr. GOP Preacher is stacking the finance committee with cronies who will endorse use of the church mailing permit to send campaign literature for their guy. Do we want Republican or Democrat to become part of the candidate profile in the pastor selection process?

Finally, our churches should never confuse political partisanship with a prophetic voice. The former finds power in the majority; the latter locates power in the minority. The former employs expediency; the latter embraces sacrifice. The former settles for what is useful; the latter goes for what is right and true. Pilate used the former; Jesus used the latter. If we are wise, our churches and pastors will never trade the birthright of a prophetic voice for the pottage of partisan, political speech and activities.

Write a personal check to the GOP. Take a co-worker to lunch and ask her to vote for a Democrat. But keep it out of the pulpit, church bulletin and finance committee. Baptists ought to be smarter than the 113 men and women in our House of Representatives who endorsed this bill.

Michael Clingenpeel is editor and business manager of the Religious Herald, the weekly newspaper of the Baptist General Association of Virginia.