Originally published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on October 5, 2008 .
Last weekend, a few pastors of large, evangelical congregations chose to convert their pulpits into planks for the Republican party platform. These participants in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” sought to challenge IRS regulations that maintain a wall between tax-exempt religious activities and taxable political ones. Citing controversial issues like reproductive freedom and same-sex marriage, they claimed that a biblical mandate required them to take a more activist role in instructing their congregants to chose the candidate who matched their political beliefs.
Their actions are yet one more indicator of the degree to which purveyors of a reactionary political agenda have continued to shield their propaganda behind the presumably sacrosanct rhetoric of the Church. The decision by these pastors to endorse a particular presidential candidate also demonstrates that the IRS’ distinction, which affirms the right of faith communities to discuss current events in the light of their traditions while denying them tax-exempt status when they move beyond that realm into partisanship, is a wise one. Simply put, stumping for a political candidate is not a religious activity.
This becomes immediately obvious when the particular agenda items cited by these pastors and the lobbyists who guide them are held up against the scriptures and traditions of the Christian faith which they claim to be preserving. In this election cycle three of the largest issues among socially conservative evangelicals are: elimination of access to abortion, prevention of equal rights for gay and lesbian couples, and the teaching of “intelligent design” in schools.
None of this issues hold up to even a cursory attempt to identify them with a consensus understanding of Christianity. Abortion is not addressed in the Bible, and Christian denominations in the U.S. hold a variety of positions on the ethics around reproductive freedom. Likewise, biblical arguments for and against same-sex marriage are sufficiently ambiguous that Christians and the denominations which represent them are divided on the issue, with the trend being toward more inclusion of clergy in same-sex relationships and blessings of same-sex marriages. As for a “biblical” understanding of how the universe was made, Christians who wish to hold with their tradition and a literal reading of the Bible must accept the biblical writers’ assumption of a flat earth and they must also agree with both Martin Luther and Pope Urban the VIII that, despite the data, the Sun goes around the Earth.
In other words, the socially and scientifically regressive arguments trumpeted by these pastors are not specifically or essentially “Christian” views. They are a last stand by social conservatives who, having lost ground in every other arena, attempt to hide their worldview behind the language of belief. In so doing, they are trying to safeguard their agenda from the scrutiny of logic and ethics on the assumption that faith claims are beyond those critiques.
They are not, but most of us are content to recognize that it is not the government’s role to evaluate the degree to which faith communities are honest about their own tradition. Consequently, churches are free to make remarkably bigoted and intransigent statements without challenge. For years, political activists have abused this freedom to produce single-issue voters whose decisions are forged, not in the thoughtful debate of the public arena, but behind the closed doors of sanctuaries and chapels.
This process has remained unchecked for so long that some pastors are now crossing the only remaining, clearly-delineated line between their churches and the state. They have reneged on their obligation to nurture houses of worship where Christians of all political persuasions can find a home. Instead, they are selling out the entire depth and breadth of the Christian tradition to the Machiavellian desires of a narrow political faction, one that will go back to ignoring those pastors and their churches as soon as the election is over. The only remaining question will be what those churches will do after they pay the taxes on their thirty pieces of silver.