When Government Gets A Hold of Our Churches

Alan Sears

10/2/2008 11:37:13 AM - Alan Sears

They called it “the Boston Tea Party.” Dozens of American colonists, disgruntled with the tea tax being imposed by the British government, expressed their displeasure by boarding merchant vessels and dumping tons of tea into Boston harbor.

They made an impression, and the self-proclaimed “Sons of Liberty” were roundly denounced by the king, the royal governor, and even many members of Parliament who had, up until then, been supportive of the colonists’ plight.

The colonists were not especially dismayed. To their minds, it was the government that had gone overboard.

And that was pretty much the sentiment expressed this past Sunday in pulpits all over America, as a handful of courageous pastors mounted their own protest against intrusive government, knowing full well that—in doing so—they were risking the full wrath and considerable might of that government’s forces.

Like the Boston Tea Party, the sermons of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” may help precipitate a revolution…this time, to restore what’s been lost from religious liberty in America.

These bold pastors are part of the “Pulpit Initiative”, a strategic legal effort of the Alliance Defense Fund designed to push back the overbearing, intrusion of IRS agents into the internal affairs of America’s churches.

Their sermons undoubtedly irked the IRS, whose interpretations of something called the “Johnson Amendment” insist that churches that intervene or participate in political campaigns can lose their tax-exempt status.

On September 28, these pastors put that interpretation to the test by bringing Biblical truth to bear on the most critical issues of this campaign, and on the public positions the major candidates have taken with respect to those issues.

The pastors’ point? That churches were tax-exempt long before the IRS even existed. It’s not a “privilege” the government can just take away. It’s a right guaranteed by the Constitution.

Big deal, say groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “I don’t see any references to tax exemption anywhere in the Constitution,” one of their spokesmen said recently. Well, no reference to “separation of church and state” appears in the Constitution either, but that’s never been their concern before.

One wonders whether AU has seen that little First Amendment reference to “Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]; or abridging the freedom of speech.” Both of which Congress did, in 1954, when it created its unconstitutional directive—effectively telling pastors what they can and cannot talk about.

Furthermore, scholars agree that a tax exemption isn’t equivalent to a subsidy from the government. In a tax exemption, no money changes hands between government and the organization as it does in a subsidy. A tax exemption, in and of itself, doesn’t provide one cent to an organization because that organization’s income is solely dependent on contributions.

It’s hard for Americans to grasp what a seismic shift the Johnson Amendment marked in our national life. For nearly 200 years prior to that regulation, preaching on the major candidates and issues was a given in the United States. Pastors understood it as their duty to shine the light of biblical wisdom on the political questions that so directly impacted the daily lives of their flock.

The moral wisdom conveyed in those sermons shifted national attitudes about slavery, child labor, civil rights, racial segregation—even independence itself. What’s more, that freedom encouraged pastors to engage their congregations in the most practical social, cultural, and political issues of their time.

Under the Johnson Amendment, the federal government has effectively sidelined that leadership and undermined church authority. Worse—at the fervent urging of groups like AU and the American Civil Liberties Union—it’s using those regulations as a foothold for gaining more and more control over church matters.

The purpose of the Pulpit Initiative is to restore the right of pastors to speak freely from the pulpit, offering a biblical perspective on any number of cultural and societal issues, without fear of punishment by the government.

Why anyone should have anything to fear from this is fairly mind-boggling. But AU, in this instance, is not just telling pastors to keep their opinions inside the four walls of the church and out of the public square. Rather, it is actually advocating that the government invade those four walls to act as the speech police. Perhaps “Americans that Demand Interference with the Church by the State” would be a more apt name for the organization.

Because apparently, for them, the only safe church is a silent church.

But AU is not alone in its hysteria. Some have even leveled the accusation that the ADF initiative is part of some massive campaign to usher John McCain into the presidency. This is laughable, considering Pulpit Freedom Sunday consisted of a handful of pastors of mostly small churches, not all of whom endorsed John McCain for president, despite what you may have been told. ADF invited pastors of a broad array of denominations, considered both conservative and liberal, to be part of the initiative because ADF believes that pastors of any political viewpoint have the right to speak freely from their pulpits without government intrusion.

Anyone who understands our legal system knows that constitutional principles cut across generations. Court cases that helped leftist war protestors avoid Vietnam in the 1960s now help pro-life pharmacists avoid participating in the evil of abortion. The entire point of the Pulpit Initiative is to establish a principle that fosters free and open debate—without having the IRS invite itself as the moderator—or as the censor. A ruling declaring the Johnson Amendment unconstitutional will benefit all churches, not just ones considered “conservative.”

Shouldn’t a group devoted to the “separation of church and state” want the IRS kept out of places of worship? Shouldn’t a group dedicated to civil liberties want a stake in securing the freedom of religious leaders to speak freely? The fact that groups like AU and the ACLU won’t support this Pulpit Initiative says much more about their agenda than the intent of ADF.

Instead, they like to point out that some Christians themselves have concerns about how much pastors should talk about political candidates from the pulpit. A legitimate and understandable concern—one that Christians should be free to talk about with their church leaders. But that’s a far different thing from saying that an enforcement agency of the federal government should be brought in to make the decision.

That kind of high-handed government entanglement cuts at the very heart of the American belief in both free speech and religious liberty—a belief our Founding Fathers held dear and one worthy of defending.

I can’t help thinking an idea like the Pulpit Initiative would suit them to a “t.”