Politics and Pulpits

Wendy Kaminer

“Some Americans question religion’s role in politics,” the Pew Forum announced in August 2008, citing new survey evidence that a “narrow majority” of the public agreed that “churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters.” Pew speculated that increased skepticism about church involvement in politics reflected “frustration and disillusionment among social conservatives.” If only.

Less than a month after publication of this survey, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF—a conservative advocacy group “defending the right to hear and speak the Truth”) announced a challenge to Internal Revenue Service rules that prohibit tax-exempt churches from endorsing political candidates or otherwise intervening in campaigns. ADF has framed this rule rather misleadingly, as a form of religious discrimination that deprives pastors of the “right to speak about biblical values without fear of punishment.”

In fact, this ban on electioneering, enacted in 1954, applies not just to churches but to all not-for-profits exempt from federal tax under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code; obviously, it does not generally apply to discussion of “biblical values” or to nonpartisan political activities (like voter education) or even political sermons from the pulpit. Preachers may and do engage in pointed, if not overtly partisan, discussions of political issues that effectively advance the agendas of particular candidates without risking the tax-exempt status of their churches. In 2004, for example—as I noted here three years ago (“Passing the Cross,” December 2005/January 2006)—celebrity pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church urged his followers to support candidates who espoused biblically correct views on issues such as stem cell research, gay marriage, abortion, and assisted suicide. He still enjoys his tax exemption.

But if the tax code demands only technical virginity from preachers, some are lusting to go all the way. Encouraging them to do so, the ADF declared September 28, 2008, “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” when pastors were exhorted to “openly discuss the positions of political candidates . . . from the pulpit.” Thirty-three pastors participated in this protest, The Washington Post reported, citing one minister who warned his flock that Barack Obama’s positions on gay same-sex unions and abortion rights stood “in direct opposition to God’s truth.” ADF’s goal is to provoke an action by the IRS that will become the basis for a federal court challenge to the electioneering ban.

Not surprisingly, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), which has vigilantly monitored violations of the electioneering ban, has denounced the ADF initiative and praised a counterattack by a group of clergy and three former IRS officials, who have filed a complaint with the IRS demanding an investigation of ADF for encouraging churches to violate federal law. But while secularists are right to support the electioneering ban (or to fault ADF for misrepresenting its scope), they’re wrong to call for federal action aimed at enjoining the ADF campaign.

ADF is engaged in civil disobedience, openly and peacefully abetting violations of a law it considers unjust, inviting punishment so that it can challenge the law in court. If this is unethical, then so are other acts of civil disobedience that secularists support. If ADF should be prevented from encouraging defiance of the electioneering ban, then secularists should be prevented from encouraging defiance of rules promoting the teaching of creationism or the recitation of daily prayers.

“We’re in a war,” I imagine some secularists responding. “We can’t afford to play by civil-libertarian rules. Respect for fairness or mutuality of rights is naïve.” Perhaps. But it’s also naïve to regard the federal government as an ally in the fights for religious and irreligious liberty—and against theocracy—in which secularists are engaged. Secularism requires a commitment to civil liberty, which rests partly on respect for civil disobedience—peaceful acts of conscience that challenge rules of law. If civil libertarianism is naïve, then so is the hope of secular government.

Wendy Kaminer

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic. Her latest book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU (Beacon Press, 2009).


“Some Americans question religion’s role in politics,” the Pew Forum announced in August 2008, citing new survey evidence that a “narrow majority” of the public agreed that “churches and other houses of worship should keep out of political matters.” Pew speculated that increased skepticism about church involvement in politics reflected “frustration and disillusionment among social …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.