September 2012 Church & State | Editorial

Interpreting polling data is always a tricky thing, but when several surveys from disparate sources tend to converge, you can say with confidence that the American public has spoken.

The American public has spoken on the matter of church electioneering: They don’t like it.

The latest poll to bear this out comes from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which reported recently that 66 percent oppose churches or other houses of worship endorsing political candidates. (Even white evangelicals, the core constituency of the Religious Right, oppose church endorsements 56 percent to 36 percent.)

The numbers are remarkably consistent with other polls taken over the years. Some show an even higher figure in opposition to partisan politicking from the pulpit.

Why is this so? If you dig a little deeper, you find that most Americans simply don’t see houses of worship as the proper vehicles for political activity. They are aware that many churches contain a cross-section of worshippers. Some members are liberal, others are conservative and some fall in between. The purpose of houses of worship, the American people are saying, is to bring people together for worship, fellowship and service – not to divide them on the basis of political beliefs.

Nevertheless, the Religious Right continues its efforts to politicize religion. On Oct. 7, the Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly the Alliance Defense Fund), is sponsoring its annual “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” During this misguided event, a handful of pastors push the legal envelope by talking about candidates from the pulpit.

The ADF hopes to prod the Internal Revenue Service to strip the tax exemption of an offending church and then take the matter into federal court. Why the group wants this is unclear – other than the fact that they plan to use it to raise money – since TV preacher Pat Robertson’s legal outfit brought a case just like this in the 1990s and resoundingly lost it. (And the three-judge appellate panel was composed of Republican appointees!)

The ADF’s gambit isn’t likely to be successful. Nor is it about “freedom.” Any church in America has the right to jump head first into partisan politics and endorse candidates – as long as it first surrenders the benefit of tax exemption.

What the ADF and its Religious Right allies seek is the “freedom” to pick and choose which laws houses of worship will follow – all while retaining the numerous perks and privileges of tax-exempt bodies.

As the polling data indicates, the American people know why this is unfair and just plain wrong. One wonders how long it will take the Religious Right to catch on.