Is asking pastors to follow the law regarding pulpit politicking akin to bullying clergy? The Religious Right seems to think so.
Last week, a former Tennessee lawmaker and current editor for the Christian Post named Paul Stanley (presumably no relation to the front man for the band KISS), said that the Family Research Council (FRC), which is still a hate group according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, commissioned a poll recently that asked how Americans feel about politics in the pulpit.
According to the survey, which was conducted by something called the polling company, inc./WomanTrend, 61 percent of Americans said in February that the Obama administration should be challenged by churches on issues regarding religious liberty.
And yet, Stanley wrote, most pastors won’t speak out against Obama’s supposed tyranny. Why not? Because groups like Americans United are intimidating them.
“Even though such bully tactics often convince pastors they cannot utter a word about government or civic issues, the good news is not one single church – not one – has lost their status as a result of these threats,” Stanley wrote. “Yet [Americans United Executive Director Barry] Lynn sends them like clock work [sic] every election cycle.”
Let’s start by focusing on those two sentences, which contain multiple inaccuracies. First, AU’s letters are not intended to give the impression that pastors are not allowed to “utter a word” on political issues, candidates or government policies. The tax code does not prohibit churches or other 501(c)(3) organizations from discussing any of those things just so long as they do not endorse anyone for public office. AU has never suggested otherwise.
Second, one church has lost its tax exemption thanks to political activity. The Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., was stripped of its tax-exempt status after it ran newspaper ads telling people not to vote for Bill Clinton in 1992. And in related news, Jerry Falwell Sr.’s Old Time Gospel Hour lost its tax exemption for two years for partisan political intervention and had to pay $50,000 in fines. It seems Stanley is either ignorant of those facts or chooses to ignore them. Either way, let’s move on.
(Side note: There are a whole lot of phony claims throughout this column, and it’s honestly too much to address in a single blog post. Just trust that if you read Stanley’s entire diatribe, you’re going to be frustrated.)
The survey Stanley cites is pretty suspect. While the polling company, inc./WomanTrend may have called 1,000 people over the age of 18 on both landlines and cell phones, as they claim, the reality is poll numbers can be easily fudged by asking loaded questions. And it’s hard to imagine a group like FRC funding anything that didn’t support its agenda.
More accurate polls show a much different result. LifeWay Research, which is the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, found a whopping 87 percent of Protestant pastors disagreed that clergy should endorse candidates in church in a poll released in October 2012. This is a slight increase from a December 2010 survey in which 84 percent of pastors said ministers shouldn’t do so.
Even 86 percent of evangelical pastors, the wheelhouse of the Religious Right, said pastors should not endorse anyone from the pulpit. But it gets better still: 82 percent of pastors who identified as Republicans felt such endorsements are wrong (compared with 98 percent of pastors who identify as Democrats).
When it comes to personal endorsements made by clergy away from the pulpit, which Stanley advocated in his column and is not a violation of federal tax law for 501(c)(3) organizations, many pastors still expressed reluctance. LifeWay found that 52 percent of the 1,000 pastors surveyed have not endorsed candidates this year even outside of their ministerial capacity.
It’s important to remember that the SBC isn’t exactly a proponent of church-state separation, so it seems their findings are more credible in this case.
Stanley went on to attack the basis for the tax code’s prohibition against pulpit politicking, quoting the Rev. Rafael Cruz (a Religious Right ally and father of Tea Party deity U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas), that the author of the no-politicking provision, then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, was out to punish churches who had campaigned against him.
Once again, this is wrong. Even the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based Religious Right legal outfit founded by radio and television preachers, which is perhaps the strongest proponent of church politicking, says that story isn’t true.
“The Johnson Amendment was added to the tax code as a result of the political machinations of Lyndon B. Johnson who was running for reelection to the United States Senate,” the ADF says on its website. “One scholar who studied this extensively concluded that the Johnson Amendment ‘is not rooted in constitutional provisions for separation of church and state…. Johnson was not trying to address any constitutional issue related to separation of church and state; and he did not offer the amendment because of anything that churches had done.’”
Seemingly for good measure, Stanley also took a shot at church-state separation. He quoted Cruz, who, during a press conference organized by FRC, said, “This poll is collaborating evidence for what we are doing in trying to encourage pastors. Jesus said we are the light of the world. Unfortunately too many pastors have been intimidated by a misunderstanding of separation of church and state, which is not found in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. As a result of that, a large percentage of pastors have failed to lead the flock.”
There is no “misunderstanding” about church-state separation. Courts have said that church-state separation IS found in the U.S. Constitution, and what the Declaration of Independence says or doesn’t say is irrelevant to legal discussions because it’s not a governance document.
Neither Americans United nor anyone else is telling pastors that they can’t discuss politics or issues. We remind houses of worship that they are not permitted to endorse political candidates, and nothing more. We see this as an important public service intended to keep churches from getting into trouble, to protect houses of worship from becoming nothing more than political machines and to make sure the law is obeyed.
If that makes us a “bully” then that term needs to be redefined.