Thursday, November 17, 2005

A Church-State Case Study

There is a cool controversy cooking over the boundaries of political action by pastors and congregations in their capacities as pastors and congregations.

Here's the story as reported by the LA Times last week. Apparently, just before the 2004 election (on Reformation Day, as it turned out -- though Episcopalian haven't received that feast into their calendars), a retired rector of All Saints Church in LA preached a sermon in which he imagined that Jesus debated with George Bush and John Kerry. The rector several times told the parishioners that he was not telling them how to vote, but he came down squarely against the Vietnam, Gulf I, and Gulf II wars. Following a complaint, the IRS has issued a warning that the tax exempt status of the parish is in danger because of its partisan activities.

Here's a blog post from Hugo (admittedly partisan in the last election) who actually heard the sermon. He follows up here. (Thanks to Camassia for bringing this to my attention through her own blog -- and for raising my hackles.)

The issue of church life and politics is at the heart of what I try to think about through this blog. I do not support pastors' preaching their partisan politics -- either from the pulpit or from their lapels. Even I, as difficult as this is to admit, must acknowledge that on most -- i.e., the vast majority -- of political issues, people of faith may disagree. (It's a sign, often, that the devil is alive and well that some of my friends don't agree with my clearly correct positions. But what can I say?) Endorsements of specific candidates or causes is not something the Church may do because it invariably means endorsing something that the Gospel stands against. That's because any candidate or cause has made compromises to get where he or she or it is. So while Al Franken might make a better senator than Norm Coleman, no church may say so because Al Franken also supports many things that faithful Christians ought to oppose (e.g., easy -- indeed, almost unthinking -- of abortion "rights").

The Gospel doesn't compromise: It is not Gospel to say "Let's compromise on the matter of sin. You're not so bad; you just need a little boost to be perfect and saved." Neither is it appropriate for the Body of Christ to encourage something less than faithfulness to the Will of God. Put another way, it is not the Church's business to adopt the agenda of anyone or anything other than God.

Of course, the Gospel compels the faithful into the streets and institutions of the world. We are called and commanded and empowered to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit the lonely and relief the oppressed and ... and ... and ... . Sometimes we may be called individually to give Gospel care to someone. With respect to the big issues of the day -- e.g., relieving the need for food or shelter or healthcare -- group (read: political) action is necessary. And that group action is not dictated (at least usually) from any passage of scripture. Prudential analysis takes into account other considerations than the Gospel mandate to do something: Economists, sociologists, nurses -- the disciplines may and should reasonably be employed to inform believers as they work our (i.e., live out) their salvation with fear and trembling.

The Church has no special expertise to set (or promote) the political agenda. But, of course, that does not mean that her voice should be denied access to the "public square." There is every reason for the Church -- by means of her members' acting individually and collectively and through missives from her bishops -- to petition the governmental structures for actions that will shape the society more along the lines that comport with the Will of God, who is, after Lord of all.

It's an art, more than science, to draw the line. I remember my amusement when Lutherans on a listserv of my acquaintance were excoriating +Mark Hanson for a letter to President Bush criticizing his proposed budget: "Where does Jesus show that he has an economics?" they asked. Well, I personally think that Jesus does indeed have an economics -- and it isn't capitalism. But their point was that Jesus was not speaking to governments, but to individuals. But I've suggested my take on that point above. But what is politicking and what is proclamation? Why does the IRS seem unconcerned about the -- shall we say -- right-leaning (if lying flat on the ground is leaning) congregations of certain note that notoriously promote right-leaning Republicans by name and party? And what about all those campaign appearances during worship services? Why has the IRS chosen this congregation for singular treatment?

I am convinced that the current US Administration has no shame and is not above using for purely partisan reasons the various agencies of government which have the authority to wreak havoc on people and institutions. (And, yes, that is a partisan opinion -- although I am not a member of the Democratic Party or even a hanger-thereon. But I think the evidence bears that out -- or will in a couple decades when the various public media get out from under the self-imposed censorship that gives the Administration a free or, at least, inexpensive ride. I think this is a purely partisan move against All Saints congregation, and I lament it.

But, by the same token, I see coming out of the situation the opportunity for renewed attention to the role of church in society. Is Church the guarantor of the society in which it dwells? (I think that theory is alive and well in many Anglican and Eastern branches.) Is the Church "a player" in the political drama? (That is certainly the understanding.) Ought it to be a "player" or a critic or above the fray? Ought Christians concern themselves only with individual action or perhaps even with withdrawal from the public "arena" all together?

Preachers, how do you proclaim the gospel in such a way as to unfold its political meaning (for to avoid that is to render the Gospel pretty much nugatory) without thereby falling into partisan traps? (It is certainly possible -- and I don't encourage any preacher deliberately to avoid any mention of partisan issues. That's a sort of gnostic impulse, in my opinion.)

Are there ways for congregations to teach their people "how" to vote without telling them "for whom" to vote? (I'd sign up for such an adult forum, for sure.)

You have a chance to join in support of All Saints by signing a statement that both raises concern about the IRS pressure on All Saints and rejects efforts to change the law of the land to allow express partisan activity by congregations and pastors. (There is apparently an effort afoot in Congress to allow political endorsements and activity by pastors and congregations. And the law would, so says the statement, allow parties to funnel money to congregations in exchange for political campaigning. (Can you imagine what that would do to the unity of the Body of Christ?) Check it out here. Perhaps needless to say, I signed. (It couldn't hurt, could it?)


Camassia said...

I guess I'm being cynical again, but my reaction to your last paragraph was, "What church unity?" Churches are already politically divided, and frankly some of this non-endorsement political preaching is just doubletalk. In fact, seeing as this regulation apparently didn't come about until the 1950s, such a state would have been the American norm rather than the exception.

Another church-state question behind all this is whether good church policy should be written into the law. I agree that churches selling their souls to political parties is a bad thing, but should that be enforced by the tax code?

Personal Diatribes said...

My question has always been "who decides". Who has the right to decide that what I said in the pulpit was political and not motivated by the text. If the government has that right then no church is free and the kind of persection left or right will depend on who is power. I don't want to be perecuted by either. When I was in the active ministry some of what I said from the pulpit would not have pleased Democrats and some of what I said would not have pleased Republicans. We need to get the government out of religion.