Issue October 1, 2008

Preaching Politics

“God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” 

  —John Lennon, “God”

Take a moment and catalog the items on the proverbial table in America this election season. Bailout. Economic depression. Two dire wars, and one major-party candidate rattling a saber for more. Forty-seven million people without healthcare. Climate change. High unemployment. Sweeping foreclosures. Monumental national debt, nearly half of which is owed to foreign countries. Tax policy favoring the super-rich. Failing public schools.

We are at the tail end of one of the most radical administrations in United States history. While the Bush administration can be faulted directly for only some of the problems relayed above, it should be asked at least why it hasn’t taken some corrective action on the others. The simple answer is that it’s easier to avoid them. The more difficult one is that many of the people who put it into office are distracted. They entered the voting booth in 2004 with a narrow focus, and have since failed to apply any pressure that might force this administration outside its comfort zone. 

I read with interest last week of the Pulpit Initiative, an effort to challenge part of the tax code preventing some tax-exempt nonprofits — like religious, charitable or educational organizations — from using their position to advocate political candidates. Last Sunday, 31 pastors (none in Louisville) delivered sermons urging congregants to vote based on a biblical worldview, which, sadly, has become a euphemism for gay marriage and abortion. Predictably, that means voting for John McCain. 

The initiative, sponsored by the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian legal group that pushes the political agenda of the religious right, is a gimmick meant to goad the IRS into punishing the churches, who would then sue the government with the hope of landing before the Supreme Court, which they hope would overturn the rule and allow the free flow of religion into American politics. 

The group and its affiliated pastors argue their free speech is being limited, and the ADF helped craft the sermons “to ensure maximum effectiveness in challenging the IRS,” according to promotional materials. 

Robert Tuttle, a scholar on church-state issues, said in an extensive Pew Forum interview that the court is likely to uphold the 1954 (Lyndon B.) Johnson amendment, which is responsible for the policy, in part because “the restriction does not prohibit the congregations from making political statements; it only bars them from using tax-deductible donations to do so.” It treats churches like other charities or education-focused nonprofits. 

If Tuttle is right, the first sacrifice in this gambit would be the actual members
of these congregations, who would not be able to take tax deductions for their tithing if the IRS strips the churches of their tax status. That seems like an unreasonable burden to place on the flock; I’m not sure, but I’ve found nothing saying these congregations voted on the Pulpit Initiative. The order appears to have come from the pulpit itself. 

Further, a change in the law separating church and state could bring a host of problems, not the least of which is the loss of protection to freely practice religions not currently represented in government. The candidate openly courting Southern Baptist congregations via Sunday mass is no different from the one taking campaign contributions from a PAC affiliated with a major Wall Street firm that is also lobbying on important legislation. Never more clearly have we seen who gets left out of that deal. 

This would also legitimize the single-issue voter, who came out in force in 2004 to vote against gay marriage and, by extension, for George W. Bush. These are grim times in America, and huge congregations are being asked to vote for McCain on the false belief that the president can overturn Roe v. Wade or, somehow, further ostracize gays. 

The misguided narcissism of the single-issue voter, and his apparent failure to comprehend the true reach of a vote, is without a doubt a contributor to our current state. This voter corrupts what should be a deeply intellectual, moral, personal and thoughtful process, making it into something reactive and emotional. This is irrational, and it would likely apply the same to one-issue voters on the left, were they able to organize more coherently around a single platform unrelated to our country’s current state of affairs but equally appalling in scale. 

I don’t blame religion for this. Deep faith in anything — a loving God or a government free from religious dogma — is admirable and difficult to achieve. There is true power in religions and their congregations. With that comes a grave responsibility. For God’s sake, please be considerate.