by Jim Ray
The sheer absurdity of the question was astonishing. Evangelist Tim Lee had just spoken at a patriotic rally in Alabama when a television reporter shoved a microphone in his face and asked, “Reverend Lee, what gives you the right to speak out about politics?”
Lee, dressed in his Marine Corp uniform, had no trouble answering the question, but he didn’t stand up to address the reporter. He didn’t stand up because back in 1971, Lee had stepped on a 60 pound box mine in Vietnam. He survived against all odds, but returned to the United States without his legs.
One would think that sacrifice would give him the right to say whatever he wanted – even if he is now a minister – but apparently not everyone agrees.
Pastors, churches and religiously-affiliated charities are often warned by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) not to engage in partisan political activity, at the risk of losing their tax-exempt status. Whenever ministers of the Gospel say something from the pulpit that could be construed as endorsing a particular candidate or political party, they’re treading on dangerous ground, according to the government.
The media – as illustrated by the interview with Lee back during the 1984 presidential campaign – and certain watchdog organizations such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, stand ready to “help” the IRS in enforcing this regulation. It could be argued, however, that these groups typically become indignant only when the endorsement is made for a conservative candidate.
For example, Americans United issued a press release condemning Liberty University Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr., for inviting Mitt Romney to speak. This, they said, was a “backdoor endorsement” and snidely suggested that “President Obama’s invitation got lost in the mail.” Unmentioned in the press release was the fact that Liberty has invited many liberals to speak in the past, including the late Ted Kennedy.
Many faith leaders such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Rev. Jim Wallis have a long history of endorsing left wing ideological agendas without any significant opposition. And there was no outcry when President Obama and his family attended Washington’s St. John’s Episcopal Church in 2010 on the same Sunday Dr. Ziad J. Asali spewed anti-Israel rhetoric from the pulpit.
Theoretically, the rule limiting political endorsements is designed to prevent the establishment of dubious “charities” whose real purpose is not religion, but to promote a purely political cause. However, the practical effect is an assault on the freedom of religion guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
To demonstrate the problematic nature of this conflict, consider the issue of abortion. Clearly it is a religious and moral issue as well as a political one. Many pastors believe abortion constitutes murder, is condemned by Scripture and should be a litmus test issue for any presidential candidate. The pastor may feel compelled to encourage his congregation to vote for a candidate who opposes legalized abortion…because failure to do so may not only result in more abortions, but may also lead to laws in which pro-life advocates are forced to pay for the abortions of others.
Under the law, a pastor is permitted to individually and personally endorse a candidate, but may not do so on behalf of the church. But what, exactly, constitutes an endorsement? Here, things get fuzzy, because Americans United and other leftist groups are constantly on the attack alleging that certain statements or activities constitute “backdoor” endorsements.
The result, effectively, is that church leaders become afraid to speak freely – not only about abortion, but about any number of important issues someone might classify as “political.”
Should the government have any business telling spiritual leaders what they may or may not say to their congregations? When Thomas Jefferson penned his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, introducing the phrase “wall of separation between Church and State” he was expressly arguing against the type of government meddling that is now taking place. “Religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God,” Jefferson wrote.
As you pray for your political leaders, lift up your spiritual leaders, also. Standing unapologetically for what they believe to be the truth of God’s Word is becoming increasingly difficult. For generations, preachers have asked, “Can I get an Amen?” as a rhetorical exhortation to their flocks. In the future, it might be a question only government monitors are allowed to answer.
Jim Ray is a writer, fundraiser and consultant. He and his wife Stacey have two children and reside in Nashville, TN.