< Pulpit Politic

Transcript

Friday, September 26, 2008

BOB GARFIELD:
Undecided voters can go lots of places for advice on who to vote for. Church is not one of those places. Clergy may sermonize about political issues but they may not advocate for a particular candidate, because a 1954 tax code provision, known as the Johnson Amendment, prohibits non-profit organizations from, quote, “intervening in elections.”

But does that fly in the face of freedom of speech and religion? A group called the Alliance Defense Fund thinks so and is organizing pastors to force the issue September 28th by intentionally violating the no endorsement rules in their sermons.

Erik Stanley is an attorney with the ADF, which calls the protest “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”
ERIK STANLEY:
They are pastors that are scattered across the country. They will preach a sermon on Sunday. That sermon will evaluate the current candidates for office in light of Scripture and will make specific recommendations based on that evaluation.

And if the IRS chooses to investigate and come after these churches, then we will file suit against the IRS on behalf of these churches and seek to have the Johnson Amendment overturned as unconstitutional.
BOB GARFIELD:
So you’re saying, make us test cases, bring it on.
ERIK STANLEY:
Yes, in essence, that’s what we're saying. And, you know, these pastors firmly believe that they should have the right to speak freely from the pulpit, that what they are doing is not political speech, that this is core religious expression, that it is applying the Bible, applying scripture to every area of life, including candidates and elections. And they shouldn't be censored or punished for that.
BOB GARFIELD:
But what part of “Vote for John McCain” or “Vote for Barack Obama” has anything to do with biblical truth? What - where’s the scripture behind that?
ERIK STANLEY:
What they will do is they will address the current candidates for office in light of what the scriptural teachings on the issues are and how the candidates stack up against those biblical teachings on the issues.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, a U.S. District Court has ruled on this issue in the past, and the ruling was that churches are not prohibited from any kind of exercise of free speech, but that in exchange for what the Supreme Court has called a “subsidy” – that is to say, their tax-exempt status – they simply have to refrain from explicit endorsements from the pulpit.
ERIK STANLEY:
The case that you’re talking about is the Church at Pierce Creek case, Branch Ministries, which was a newspaper ad that was run by a church. The church conceded that it was not part of their free exercise of religion to run that newspaper ad.

Here we're talking about a completely different set of facts, a pastor preaching to his congregation from the pulpit on a Sunday morning. You can't get any more of the core of free exercise of religion than that.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, this principle, obviously, is very important to you, because, as I understand it, by encouraging these 33 pastors to flout the IRS regulations, that you could lose your ability to practice before the tax bar, that you could be disqualified from arguing cases with the IRS. Is that true?
ERIK STANLEY:
I can't, obviously, stop them from trying, but I think that we are not encouraging a violation of the federal tax law here. What we're doing is engaging in activities that other groups, like the ACLU, even, engage in on a daily basis.

If one of our citizens is confronted with a law that infringes on their Constitutional rights to free speech or free exercise of religion, whatever it may be, then that individual has the option to freely exercise their constitutional rights. If the government chooses to enforce the law against them, then they have a right to cease their activities, go to federal court and ask the court to decide the constitutionality of that law.

That’s what these pastors are doing. They're freely exercising their constitutional right. And so -
BOB GARFIELD:
Civil disobedience, in other words.
ERIK STANLEY:
Well, you know, and I wouldn't even characterize it as civil disobedience. What I would characterize it as is obedience to the Constitution. It was an unconstitutional piece of legislation when it was passed, and it’s unconstitutional now.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, the American Civil Liberties Union and more than a hundred other pastors are lined up against you on this. They preached last Sunday, not with a political endorsement, but rather arguing against your pulpit initiative. They believe that what’s at issue here is the separation of church and state. Why are they wrong?
ERIK STANLEY:
Well, it’s interesting that they will argue very forcefully for the separation of church and state, but in this instance what they're actually asking for by continuing the Johnson Amendment is continued government control and censorship over the pulpit, continued entanglement of the government with religion, in essence.

What we're doing here is trying to enforce a very healthy separation between church and state, to really get the government out of the pulpits of America, once and for all, because the government and government agents have no business parsing the words of a sermon to determine whether the law is violated or not.

This, at base, is a theological discussion that churches and pastors need to debate among themselves. This is not a theological debate that the government should come down on one side or the other on.

BOB GARFIELD:
All right Erik, thank you very much.
ERIK STANLEY:
Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD:
Erik Stanley is senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund.

The Reverend Eric Williams is sending a very different message to his flock at the North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus, Ohio. Last Sunday, he urged clergy across the nation to preach from the pulpit against repealing the Johnson Amendment and for the IRS to take action against the ADF. He may have led the charge, but he says many heard the call.
REVEREND ERIC WILLIAMS:
It’s been a charge that’s been very easy to lead because the vast majority of clergy, I think, around the nation understand what’s at stake. They understand that the separation of church and state largely protects the religious freedoms we enjoy.
BOB GARFIELD:
All right, that’s understood, but my understanding of the separation of church and state is that it’s supposed to keep the state out of the business of the church and not vice versa.
REVEREND ERIK WILLIAMS:
Well, it’s a separation that seeks both parties to honor the unique role the other party plays. And I really look at this initiative by the Alliance Defense Fund as an attempt to entangle the church with government.

They portray it as just the opposite, but, in fact, if a religious leader is so concerned about endorsing a candidate, then they really have their eye towards the political process, rather than the role that the church usually plays in the public discussion.
BOB GARFIELD:
But what about the free speech issue here? Why should a church be penalized by losing its tax exemption for expressing a view on anything, political or otherwise?
REVEREND ERIK WILLIAMS:
Well, the tax exemption really is a privilege. It’s not a right. Really any minister can endorse a candidate; you just can't do that using tax dollars. So if the minister is willing to set aside that tax-exempt status, that’s fine. Or why can't the minister just step out of the pulpit, take off the robe, cross the street, be off of church property and endorse as a private citizen?

It’s not really, in my mind, a question of free speech. It’s really a question of abusing the privileged role that charities - in this case churches - have, the government extended to them, to use tax dollars to endorse candidates.
BOB GARFIELD:
Some people, including the Supreme Court of the United States, have described the tax exemption as a subsidy for churches to do their charitable and spiritual work.
REVEREND ERIC WILLIAMS:
Uh-huh.
BOB GARFIELD:
But the people on the other side of this argument, at the Alliance Defense Fund, object to that word “subsidy.” They think that skews the discussion. Is that the right word?
REVEREND ERIC WILLIAMS:
Well, I don't think it would be a word that I would choose, but I certainly understand and would agree with that choice. We need to look at church history and we need to look at our own national history.

When those first immigrants came over, they were coming over for several reasons, but central was religious freedom. I would describe our nation as a religious nation, you know, with a lot of the values, religious values that we hold individually, inform, I think, the polity and practice of our government. And so the government has recognized that among all the charities, the church and the synagogue, the mosque is something that does good work.

There is this historic understanding between the government and the religious community that elevates the status of the religious community so that it can do the good work. And I like the word “elevated” because I think that is our role. We need to be above politics. We don’t – we should not ever seek to entangle ourselves with politics.
BOB GARFIELD:
The republic seemed to, you know, blunder along pretty well for 180 years before the 1954 statute that removes tax exemptions for explicitly political nonprofits.
REVEREND ERIC WILLIAMS:
Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD:
What changed 54 years ago that made the government have to use the tax code as both a carrot and a stick?
REVEREND ERIC WILLIAMS:
I can't be honest and say I know in detail all that went into that 1954 amendment. My understanding is it was clearly a logical, reasonable expression of this evolution of our democratic process.

When the Pilgrims and Puritans came over, there were only three or four different denominations. Today we have over 300 world religions. And I think that the separation of church and state is one of those safeguards that allows each of those 300 religions to worship and to conduct their life in a way, again, that’s free from the kind of government control or influence that the original immigrants fled to this nation to enjoy.
BOB GARFIELD:
I have to invoke the Reverend Martin Luther King here -
REVEREND ERIC WILLIAMS:
Sure.
BOB GARFIELD:
- who himself used the pulpit as a bully pulpit, not only to advance the cause of civil rights but to condemn the war in Vietnam and, implicitly, the Johnson Administration. Do you think he was abusing the privileges of his pulpit?
REVEREND ERIC WILLIAMS:
He was in no way endorsing or opposing a candidate running for office. He was doing the good, hard, prophetic work that I think churches should be doing. If he had become entangled in the election process, he would have lost the integrity, he would have lost the moral authority that he could bring to opposing the war and opposing some of those issues of the government.

So, Martin Luther King understood that he could approach that line of separation but dare not cross it. He could very reasonably, prophetically, passionately and legally push all the social issues of the day without violating the law. That was the genius he brought, I think, to the movement he led.
BOB GARFIELD:
Well, Reverend Williams, thank you very much.
REVEREND ERIC WILLIAMS:
My pleasure, Bob, take care.
BOB GARFIELD:
Eric Williams is senior pastor at the North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus, Ohio.
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.:
I've seen promising young black boys who are already facing discrimination at home, going away and dying in disproportionate numbers in Vietnam. We are 11 percent of the population here and we are 22 and 4/10ths percent of the dying force in Vietnam. These are facts that we must hear. And when somebody tells me that these two issues can't be mixed, they are mixed; I didn't mix them.
[LAUGHTER]
The war mixed ‘em. Our nation spends approximately 500,000 dollars to kill every enemy soldier, and we spend about 53 dollars a year on every person categorized as poverty stricken, and half of this goes for the salaries of those who are not poor.

Now, there are some tragic priorities here. This war has hurt the humility of our nation. We've come to believe somehow that we are God’s appointed agent to be a sort of policeman of the whole world.

We are arrogant in feeling that we have everything to teach other nations and nothing to learn from them. We are arrogant in not allowing young nations to go through the same turbulence and revolution that characterized our own history. We are arrogant in talking about we are concerned about the liberties of others overseas, and refuse to set our own house in order.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD:
That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips and Nazanin Rafsanjani, and edited – by Brooke. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh. We had production help from Michael Bernstein. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD:
And I'm Bob Garfield.