Friday, October 17, 2008

Politics from the Pulpit

This issue has been festering for a while, so I am likely to express myself rather hotly. On this issue, I'm going to bare my soul a little more daringly than I have in the past. As you read what follows, keep in mind my disclosures: I am a progressive, but I am not a Democrat; I have a campaign poster for Obama on my computer desktop (and one on my lawn), but he was not my first choice for a candidate; I belong to a very politically progressive (sometimes, I think, mindlessly so) Lutheran congregation (with a very traditional liturgical life) from which I would bolt were the pastor to make any pronouncement that smacked of a partisan political endorsement or denunciation (even though his politics are similar to mine); I take the First Amendment (both halves) with utter seriousness. Now, on with the rant.

The Gospel is fundamentally political. That is to say that the Gospel has implications for the ways that people structure their individual lives and the societies of which they are members. Whether one's thinking runs to Niebuhrian "realism" (whose "reality"?) or Hauerwasian Church-as-polis, she recognizes that the Gospel's message has direct impacts on the ways one builds a world -- and that includes the way that she votes.

But it's a majorly big step to go from that assertion to the claim that one can thereby justify the religious endorsement of political parties or candidates or (perhaps, I'm not too sure about this yet) particular pieces of legislation. The Constitution provides for the voice of the religious (I'm not going to say "church" at this point, because I believe that the Constitution is dynamic enough to encompass Muslims, even though the original drafters had virtually no experience or thought of them) in the "public square." But it is also clear that that provision does not extend to the official endorsement of any particular religious point of view. And one aspect of that balance has been written into the tax code.

Religious properties and enterprises enjoy an amazing exemption from the levy of taxes (property, income, and the like) and even from numerous laws that otherwise would apply to the kinds of work, service, and projects that congregations undertake. But that tax exemption (as with other tax-exempt organizations) requires that the judicatory, parish, or preacher refrain from partisan activities. Thus, if a mosque or emerging group wishes to avail itself of the tax exemption on its income, the leader must refrain from political endorsements, the congregation itself must not actively participate as an entity or under formal santion of the entity in any activities that promote one candidate over another. (Similarly, the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University was revoked because of its racial-segregation policies. The place wasn't shut down, of course; it was just denied the advantages that inhere in being tax-exempt: For example, gifts from donors are not deductible on the donors' tax returns.)

In the past, "the government" has done little nosing into religious activity (except sub rosa surveillance and the like). But you may remember that in the last election an Episcopal congregation in California (I think it was) got blasted by the IRS because an interim priest had the audacity to compare Bush and Kerry's stands on the Iraq war and included some criticism of the Bush's stand. (What would God say? What would Jesus want ... ?) But the same diligence has never appeared to apply to the right-wing worlds of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and the like.

Recently a group of fools (they see themselves as "fools for Christ," but I don't think they're operating "for Christ") has determined to test the limits of the government's authority. Their practice was to endorse, from the pulpits in their official capacity as pastors, John McCain as the Christ-approved candidate for president. Their argument was that the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States granted them the freedom to do so and that under the First Amendment, their tax status could not be touched.

Well, it doesn't take a law-school genius to see the foolishness of the argument, and it doesn't take a theologian with a PhD from Yale to recognize the stupidity of their claim. Nothing in the First Amendment guarantees them a tax exemption. It would be perfectly within the purview othe protections afforded by the First to levy a tax on relgious enterprises. That the policy of this country is to exempt religious organizations engaged in non-partisan activities results in a privilege, not a right. I think that these goons will be brought up short and their true motives will be made clear. (Although, under the Justice Department as it has developed over the last eight years -- see the Inspector General's report -- since the endorsements were of the Republican, it would surprise me if there were discernable action.)

On a larger and more troubling scale is the Roman Catholic problem. (How's that for framing in the worst possible way?) Several Roman Catholic bishops have recently gotten away with partisan pronouncements, and Lisa Sowle Cahill notes in her commentary here. Because(apparently) by their lights the only political issue that God cares about is abortion -- despite the almost innumerable letters, statements, encyclicals, and pronouncements to the contrary from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops -- a few bishops have issued decrees that Catholic voters must vote Republican, that the Democratic party (despite its having the strongest anti-war group, the healthiest social safety-net policies, and the like) is the "party of death," and the like.

I'm curious about this program for two reasons. First, it seems to demonstrate the foolishness of calling the Roman Catholic Church "one church" (any more than one denomination) if its hierarchy are so polarized, so partisan, so unwilling to look to the range of the Bishops' teachings as to allow some of the bishops to go off half-cocked with nary a peninsula to stand on. Second, will the partisan statements result in any serious governmental inquiry. Is the Roman Catholic Church in the United States just too big to allow to fail? Is it too big to take on? Is the project too risky, given the power of the core conservative-and-Catholic constituency on the Supreme Court?

Cahill's rather bland analysis highlights the complexity of Catholic teaching on the way that Catholics should be involved in the civic life of their country. Her analysis grows out of the teaching of the Church promulgated by the papacy and the conference of bishops in this country. That certain bishops decide that they can go their own way must be really embarrassing to sincere traditional Catholics for whom a "cafeteria approach" to truth is not an option for Catholics.

And on a practical note, despite at least six years recently when the "pro-life" party held control of the government -- legislative, executive, and judiciary -- abortion laws remained virtually unchanged, did they? So much for the practical implications of violating American law, bishops.


-C said...

I don't disagree with a thing you've said here - but I think I'll email you privately with my response, after I've given it some thought.

Of course, it does make me squirm just a little ...

WAJ said...

Dwight, It's well that you identified your blog as a "rant"; it's one of the few things you said that isn't skewed terribly. This could be one of those wonderful opportunites to reprise those marvelous conversations (arguments?) that we used to share years ago much to the chargrin and confusion of our classmates.