Bad Advice On Pulpit Politicking From The Southern Baptist Convention
Rob Boston printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Jul 31, 2007 at 11:14:05 AM EST
There was a time when the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) supported religious liberty for everyone, undergirded by the separation of church and state. We tend to forget that many Baptists stood alongside Enlightenment-era thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to build the church-state wall.

Unfortunately, the leadership of the SBC fell into the hands of right-wing fundamentalists some years ago. These days, the individuals running the nation's largest Protestant denomination spend inordinate amounts of time trying to politicize their churches on behalf of the most reactionary Republicans imaginable, in a misguided crusade to use the law to enforce their theological views.

Woe be it to anyone who tries to tell them this is not a good idea. Recently, John L. Yeats, SBC recording secretary and director of communications for the Louisiana Baptist Convention, blasted Americans United for Separation of Church and State in a Baptist Press column because AU dares to remind houses of worship that, under the rules of the Internal Revenue Service, they may not intervene in campaigns by endorsing or opposing candidates.

In election years, AU sends letters to churches nationwide reminding them of the terms of this law. These letters go to churches of many different denominations and political persuasions. AU calls this effort "Project Fair Play."

Wrote Yeats, "In the 2000 election year, Barry Lynn, AU executive director, wrote, `Federal tax law, which governs the activities of houses of worship, prohibits churches from engaging in partisan politics on behalf of or in opposition to a presidential candidate.'"

Added Yeats, "Did you see what he said? `Federal tax law, which governs the activities of houses of worship....' What is the government doing policing the activities of a church?"

I hate to break it to you, John, but all 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations have been barred from endorsing or opposing candidates for more than 50 years. Tax exemption is not mentioned in the Constitution. It is a benefit, not a right. One of the conditions put on it is the ban on partisan politicking. When congregants make a tax-deductible donation to a church or other charity, they shouldn't have to worry that the money will be spent on partisan endeavors.

In the early 1990s, a church in New York, backed by attorneys with TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, argued it had a free-speech right to intervene in political races. The argument failed miserably in a federal appeals court.

Yeats also writes, "With its letter in 2000, AU attempted to intimidate pastors into thinking they must become homiletic wimps or lose their church's tax exemption. During a presidential election process, the idea of a church being silent on significant moral issues rubs across the grain of American history."

This is tiresome semantic slight of hand. Religious Right leaders constantly claim that AU is trying to intimidate church leaders into not speaking out on the issues of the day. But our letters say no such thing. AU's 2000 letter to churches (as well as its letters in 2002, 2004 and 2006), specifically reminded pastors that they may speak out on issues but must stop short of activities that are designed to persuade people to vote for or against a certain candidate.

Just so there is no doubt, here is the relevant passage from AU's 2006 letter: "The First Amendment protects the right of all Americans, religious leaders included, to speak out on religious, moral and political issues. However, houses of worship and other nonprofit entities classified under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Service Tax Code are barred from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office and may not intervene directly or indirectly in partisan campaigns." (Identical language appeared in the 2000, 2002 and 2004 letters.)

Yeats' beef is not with Americans United; it is with the IRS. Recently, the federal tax agency announced several steps to crack down on flagrant abuses of the law barring politicking by non-profits. This undoubtedly annoys Yeats, as he would like to mobilize SBC churches on behalf of Republican candidates. (It probably annoys Richard Land, the SBC's top lobbyist in Washington, as well. Lately, Land has been behaving like an unpaid staff member of Fred Thompson's campaign.)

Religious leaders tempted to take Yeats' advice might want to visit the IRS Web site first and read up on the tax agency's "Political Activity Compliance Initiative" and familiarize themselves with the penalties for not following the rules.

They might also wish to reflect on this: If they violate those rules, it is not AU they will have to deal with; it is the IRS.

Pastors are expected to follow the same set of rules every other 501(c)(3) non-profit follows. This includes scientific groups, trade associations, universities, hospitals, charitable groups and many others. It is not too much to ask.

In short, the IRS does not require pastors to be "homiletic wimps." It does, however, require them to obey reasonable laws designed to prevent America's houses of worship from behaving like political action committees.

I read the Yeats article a few days ago, it was on the SBC website. Yeats' claims are bizarre. However, they seem fairly typical of the usual effluent posted on the SBC's "news" site. Early Baptists, perhaps most notably John Leland, were strong supporters of separation of church and state. But, did Southern Baptists ever show the strong support for separation that other Baptist groups exhibited? If they did it must have entirely evaporated with their "conservative resurgence" of the late 1970s and early '80s. The SBC has always been different. Southern Baptists have often shown a unique talent for twisted reasoning regarding political/social issues and a skill for blaming the other side. Southern Baptists might like to bury their own history, but even their founding was supported by fuzzy reasoning. The Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845, in a split with northern Baptists, over their national organization's prohibition against missionaries owning slaves. The SBC formed in Augusta, Georgia in 1845. Using rationale that sounds like the states rights argument, the SBC claimed (and continued claiming for a very long time) that the split was not over slavery at all, but was the result of northern interference with their rights. Recently, I have noticed some Southern Baptists comparing abortion, and a variety of other things they find objectionable, to slavery. Almost funny. It is amazing that anyone takes them seriously, but it is frightening how many people do take them seriously.

by gertrudes on Tue Jul 31, 2007 at 09:07:15 PM EST

There are freedom-loving Baptists still out there, fighting the good fight, if I do say so myself. Also, Mainstream Baptist, Melissa Rogers, Big Daddy Weave, to name just a few other (favorite) bloggers. Hopefully something good and influential and remarkably Baptist will come of this as well.

by DonByrd on Fri Aug 03, 2007 at 01:45:27 AM EST

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