Pulpit Freedom Sunday

If You Wanna Dance, You Gotta Pay The Band

HB1“Wolde you bothe eate your cake, and have your cake?” – John Heywood (ca. 1546)

This is one of those subjects that comes up often, one that I have remained attuned to and one that I often subject to critical examination. Even when I was a preacher, I thought it a bad idea to speak about politics from the pulpit, the Sunday school room or even at church fellowship functions. Why? Well, for one thing, I didn’t want the state getting involved my church, and figured the best way to do that was to keep my church from getting involved in the state. I always saw SOCAS as a two-way street.

As well, it was illegal, and what sort of example would I be setting if I did so? The First Amendment has nothing to do with it. As individuals, we have the right to speak our mind, and to a peaceful redress of our grievances. There are platforms and provisions for both, and most of us understand what those involve. Today, I would like to briefly examine the issue of,

Preaching Politics From The Pulpit…

As many of you know, yesterday, 7 October 2012, was “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” This was the day where thousands (sic) of preachers, pastors, priests and ministers throughout the United States flouted the law as put forth by the Internal Revenue Service. They openly endorsed a political candidate, and also engaged in other activities that violated the IRS requirements regarding the restrictions placed on religious organizations under Section 501(c)(3) , which states,

“Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.  Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”

I understand what they are doing is perceived as a form of protest by both themselves and many believers throughout the nation. Perception, however, does not mean it’s legal, and as I stated in the opening of this piece, there are venues provided by our Constitution that allow for protests. Also, there are venues provided for that allow laws to be changed, etc. What these clergy are guilty of is willful ignorance.

They know what they are doing is illegal, but they choose to ignore the law and willfully act in a way that is not only in violation, but insolent, arrogant and show a willingness to act with impunity. By the way, impunity means,

“Exemption or immunity from punishment or recrimination. Exemption or immunity from unpleasant consequences and acting with no care or heed for such consequences”

Why The Restrictions..?

The reason why these restrictions were placed into the IRS code in 1954, also known as “The Johnson Amendment,” or “House Resolution 235,” has been discussed, at length. The questions that arise have nothing to do with free speech. The problem is that these clergy are confusing the issue of free speech with the government subsidization of their businesses. Businesses? Yes, a vast majority of churches have a corporate structure, and are incorporated under the laws of the state that they reside in. They have executive officers, boards of directors, articles of incorporation, the works.

It is not the individuals who are prevented from exercising their right to freedom of speech. It is the church, the corporate entity, which has the prohibitions placed on it. To reiterate, this is not a case of the government interfering in an individuals right to exercise their constitutional right to freedom of speech. A member of the clergy is not prohibited from preaching politics from their pulpit. Again, their free speech is not being violated.

They can get up there and read directly from their preferred party’s political platform for however long they want, and they can even endorse a candidate for whatever reason they want. They can do this without personally being molested, arrested or otherwise sanctioned – even if they are a corporation of one.

Consequences…

These exist. They bear on the privilege of the employers of these ministers (the religious corporations) to not be required to pay certain taxes. This is not a difficult concept to understand. The taxes that the church is not paying amounts to some $71 billion (US). If the church (corporate) wants to continue to enjoy this privilege, then it needs to remain in compliance with the law and refrain from sticking its proverbial nose into politics. Wait, privilege? Yes. According to Regan v. Taxation With Representation, it has been held that taxpayer status is a matter of legislative grace. Meaning, Congress may classify taxpayers and place limitations in order to maintain that status.

The Supreme Court held that allowing the IRS to refuse to allocate a tax-exempt status to an organization does not infringe on the First Amendment right to free speech. This is because the government is not required to subsidize political ideology through tax benefits. How much more succinctly can this be stated?

The fact that these pastors, preachers and priests are under the impression that they should be allowed to engage in their political proselytizing is directly connected to yet another aspect of their willful ignorance – the belief that the United States was founded as, and continues to be – a Christian Nation. That they are under the impression they can both preach politics from the pulpit and not have to pay certain taxes is part and parcel the aforementioned arrogance and impunity.

To digress a little, it is funny (and not ‘ha ha’ funny) that they love to cite the Declaration of Independence, because it has the word “creator” in it. For one thing, most of them have no idea what that means, and some of them are not even aware of the use of the word “their” and not “the.” The thing is, we are not governed by the Declaration, but by our Constitution, and our secular laws are based on humanist principles.

Paying The Band…

So, this brings us to the question of choice. As it should. At the risk of being accused of presenting sort of a semi-false dichotomy, I will put forth the following three questions with respect to the The Johnson Amendment:

  1. Should the amendment be repealed, allowing for preachers to preach politics, as long as churches pay taxes like other businesses?
  2. Should these preachers continue to be restricted from preaching said politics from the pulpit and the church get taxed anyway?
  3. Should the IRS tax code be left as it is, allowing the tax exemptions as long as the preachers quit politicking from the pulpit?

Personally, I am of the opinion that the preachers should be allowed to say what they want from the pulpit, but should be taxed like any other business. There are those who disagree with this, stating that a pastor has the ability to influence a large number of people to vote a certain way that is against the best interests of equality for all human beings. Yes, this is true. But they do it anyway in Sunday School classes, church social functions and in other ways that are off the altar.

Most people of reason, and this includes many progressive and liberal-minded believers, can see right through the hate, bigotry and discrimination that these purveyors of pomposity belch out on any given Sunday. Their rancid rhetoric is not going to hold sway, and in many cases, will result in an outcry from civil rights activists all over the country, which can only result in more civil rights laws being passed.

As well, many of these churches would not have the resources they do if they had to pay taxes like other businesses which are allowed to endorse political candidates for whatever reason they want. The Council for Secular Humanism has an excellent article, titled, “Research Report: How Secular Humanists (and Everyone Else) Subsidize Religion in the United States.” In this piece, Ryan T. Cragun, Stephanie Yeager, and Desmond Vega explain how all of us, regardless of belief or unbelief, are paying the price for the continued existence of the IRS code, and present an excellent argument as to why there should be zero tax exemptions for churches.

This article is long and very detailed, and offers a great deal of information regarding this issue, including a handy chart explaining the subsidies, which I am reprinting here:

501c311

As well as this handy table that outlines where the seventy-one billion dollar figure comes from:

Subsidies1

Final Thoughts…

As you can imagine, I am not at all happy about the rhetoric that I read about every day in my news feeds. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t read about some politician (almost always Republican and almost always Fundamental Christian) saying something so utterly and completely inhumane. It’s also disheartening how many secularists I run into that are unaware of the level of the din these politicians are creating, nor what is being preached in the pulpit.

A recent YouTube video that had a preacher exclaiming that atheists should be barred as citizens got a decent amount of exposure, but most of that exposure was to those of us who are unbelievers that already know these people exist. Same for the videos about putting homosexuals behind electric fences, or worse. Perhaps if we remove the privilege of not having to pay taxes, it will release these clergy to expose their true colors and the deep, dark nature of their bigotry? In doing so, maybe more people in the mainstream of both the secular and the sectarian will begin to realize what a detriment these preachers, pastors and priests are to the freedom, liberty and civil rights for all of us.

What are your thoughts?

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  2 comments for “Pulpit Freedom Sunday

  1. October 8, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    I am a pastor in a conservative (theologically, not politically) Christian church. I actually agree with everything you said up until the end. I think these pastors need to leave politics out of their pulpits, or give up exemptions, however, when you lump conservative Christians in with the crazies you mention in your last paragraph you enter in to your own form of intellectual dishonesty. I’m in a church of 1,500 people and I don’t know a single one that would throw a gay person in a cage for being gay. I network with pastors all over the country, and none of them or their congregants would either. There is a minority too small to take remotely seriously that say such things, usually in the south. I know some hateful atheists, but I certainly don’t blame you for their words or behavior. Be more fair. However, most of your article was credible and spot on until the end.

    • October 8, 2012 at 7:24 pm

      Danny,

      Thank you very much for your comment, and I appreciate your point of view. I try to make it a point to differentiate from the extremists in both Islam and Christianity from the mainstream. In fact, I dedicated an entire chapter in my first book to this, and have written and commented many times about the fact that extremists very often make it very difficult for the mainstream to be taken seriously in the non-sectarian world. This is especially true where I live, here in the south, where the level of bigotry can get quite overwhelming. Yes, there are hateful people on both sides of the fence, and I have crossed that line myself on occasion. However, the fact that I’ve been very happily married to a Christian woman for over two decades should speak to the fact that I am willing to be diplomatic, as long as the other party is, too.

      Again, thank you. Hope you have an outstanding day.

      -Al

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