Barry Lynn on Politics and the Pulpit
Renee in Ohio printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Oct 14, 2006 at 02:02:42 PM EST
bumped up from the diaries -- fc

More from last Sunday's forum. Barry Lynn is the Executive Director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the author of Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom.

The issue in Ohio is the same one we're seeing all over the country, and I'm going to phrase this question in three ways.

Will churches deliberately or unwittingly let their sanctuaries become soapboxes for selected candidates for public office?

Will the churchgoers know incense from the altar or cigar smoke from the partisan political activity in the basement when they walk into a church?

Will the church advocate the civic responsiblity of voting, or advance the candidacies of certain people they want to see elected?

The rubber really will hit the road in the next few weeks, and here is what I hope will not happen in Ohio or around the country. Churches should not be opening their doors to meetings of, say, the Fairfield County Republican Party unless it is willing to do precisely the same for the Fairfield County Democratic Party. Churches should not a Democratic senate candidate to "say a few words" in their churches before election day unless they invite the Republican candidate to do exactly the same thing.  And perhaps most importantly, churches should not distribute or allow to be distributed in houses of worship, any so-called "voter guides" that are obviously created to support one candidate over all others.

This year,  a number of entitities have announced plans to put out these voter guides--the Christian Coalition, created by Pat Robertson, announced its intention to do so just this past week. And Focus on the Family has promised to have its State Policy Councils--Phil's group is one--to prepare and distribute guides in eight targeted states, which just happen to hold the key to whether the Senate is primarily Democratic or Republican after the election.

And here's my prediction based on the past practice of these groups. If you cannot tell for whom you are supposed to vote, after looking at, say, a Christian Coalition guide, then you obviously need new glasses. (Laughter).

How can voter guides be in violation of the IRS regulations? The first clue is that they're on a very narrow range of issues, not like the League of Women Voters. The second might be that they allegedly cull candidate positions from newspapers and other public sources, and then reduce these very complicated issues just to whether a candidate favors or opposes a position--one word answers to complex questions.

Based on these past practices, a lot of these voter guides, produced by the so-called "religious right",  frankly are going to make all Republicans look like they are next in line for elevation to sainthood, and make every Democrat appear to be the next candidate for becoming a wax figurine in the House of Horrors museum in New Jersey. That's what they're intended to do. Those characterizations can be made using a variety of techniques.

A 2004 guide from Focus on the Family had language that used phrases like "partial birth abortion". Ladies and gentlemen, that is not a medical term, that is a political slogan of the right. When it appears in a document, it makes it very clear where the producer of that document wants people to stand. And I hope that when third party advocates of groups that are not member of your church come to your church and ask to distribute these voter guides, you look at them very carefully, whether they come from left, right, or center. Because pimping for any party or politician has no business occurring in the chapel, in the narthex, or even in the parking lot of any church in the United States of America.

Thomas Jefferson wrote a great letter on the subject of preaching politics from the pulpit. What Jefferson was referring to in this letter was a collection of discourses written by a minister about the War of 1812 that was sent to him for his comments. Jefferson agreed with everything this minister wrote, except for one thing - the right of ministers to preach politics from the pulpit. This is an interesting letter because, in it, Jefferson also expresses his opinion that ministers shouldn't preach about other topics, such as science and medicine, the very subjects that today's ministers are delving into. Bear in mind that there was, of course, no I.R.S. code at the time, so Jefferson's opinion didn't have anything to do with the legality of preaching politics, but merely the propriety of it.

The following are the pertinent excerpts from Jefferson's letter. This is a bit long, but definitely worth reading.

"On one question only I differ from him, and it is that which constitutes the subject of his first discourse, the right of discussing public affairs in the pulpit. I add the last words, because I admit the right in general conversation and in writing; in which last form it has been exercised in the valuable book you have now favored me with...."

"...Collections of men associate together, under the name of congregations, and employ a religious teacher of the particular sect of opinions of which they happen to be, and contribute to make up a stipend as a compensation for the trouble of delivering them, at such periods as they agree on, lessons in the religion they profess. If they want instruction in other sciences or arts, they apply to other instructors ; and this is generally the business of early life. But I suppose there is not an instance of a single congregation which has employed their preacher for the mixed purposes of lecturing them from the pulpit in Chemistry, medicine, in Law, in the science and principles of Government, or in anything but Religion exclusively. Whenever, therefore, preachers, instead of a lesson in religion, put them off with a discourse on the Copernican system, on chemical affinities, on the construction of government, or the characters or conduct of those administering it, it is a breach of contract, depriving their audience of the kind of service for which they are salaried, and giving them, instead of it, what they did not want, or, if wanted, would rather seek from better sources in that particular art or science. In choosing our pastor we look to his religious qualifications, without inquiring into his physical or political dogmas, with which we mean to have nothing to do. I am aware that arguments may be found, which may twist a thread of politics into the cord of religious duties. So may they for every other branch of human art or science. Thus, for example, it is a religious duty to obey the laws of our country; the teacher of religion, therefore, must instruct us in those laws, that we may know how to obey them. It is a religious duty to assist our sick neighbors; the preacher must, therefore, teach us medicine, that we may do it understandingly. It is a religious duty to preserve our own health; our religious teacher, then, must tell us what dishes are wholesome, and give us recipes in cookery, that we may learn how to prepare them. And so, ingenuity, by generalizing more and more, may amalgamate all the branches of science into any one of them, and the physician who is paid to visit the sick, may give a sermon instead of medicine, and the merchant to whom money is sent for a hat, may send a handkerchief instead of it. But notwithstanding this possible confusion of all sciences into one, common sense draws lines between them sufficiently distinct for the general purposes of life, and no one is at a loss to understand that a recipe in medicine or cookery, or a demonstration in geometry, is not a lesson in religion. I do not deny that a congregation may, if they please, agree with their preacher that he shall instruct them in Medicine also, or Law, or Politics. Then, lectures in these, from the pulpit, become not only a matter of right, but of duty also. But this must be with the consent of every individual; because the association being voluntary, the mere majority has no right to apply the contributions of the minority to purposes unspecified in the agreement of the congregation. I agree, too, that on all other occasions, the preacher has the right, equally with every other citizen, to express his sentiments, in speaking or writing, on the subjects of Medicine, Law, Politics, etc., his leisure time being his own, and his congregation not obliged to listen to his conversation or to read his writings..."

Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellegy Bergh, eds., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 14, (Washington, DC: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1907), 279-282.

by Chris Rodda on Fri Oct 13, 2006 at 07:51:00 PM EST

This one should be required reading. Jefferson never ceases to amaze.

I wonder, though -- what would today's world do with him if he were here now?

by anomalous4 on Sat Oct 14, 2006 at 05:50:33 PM EST

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