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Matthew Wilson, Dedman College professor, should the government say whether churches can preach politics from the pulpit?


MATTHEW WILSON, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University

The limitation on political activity by religious organizations is both misguided and unenforceable in any coherent, consistent way, and should thus be repealed. Many of the fundamental concerns of any religious group — war and peace, human rights, marriage and family policy, economic justice — are inextricably linked with politics. To pretend otherwise reduces religion to an anemic, privatized shell of itself, unable to speak to the major moral questions of the day.

There are critical aspects of religion that are deeply personal and transcendent, and that have nothing to do with politics. These exist side-by-side, however, with concerns about social justice, public virtue, and the common good that are inevitably political. As the theologian Karl Barth wrote in Community, State, and Church, Christian faith “makes one thing quite impossible: a Christian decision to be indifferent; a non-political Christianity.” Thus, IRS regulations that seek to muzzle the Church’s prophetic voice strike at the heart of what it means to be a Christian community in the world. To say, as the government currently does, that religious leaders may speak about issues, but not parties or candidates, is an insufficient accommodation. The implication would be that Martin Luther King and other pastors who led the civil rights movement were free to talk about segregation, but imperiled their churches’ non-profit status as soon as they mentioned George Wallace or Bull Connor (who were holders of or candidates for public office). The Church would theoretically be free to condemn Nazism or communism as ideological movements, but not to say anything about Nazis or communists, because those are actual parties with candidates (albeit fringe ones).

This forces religious leaders, if they truly seek to comply with the law, into a disingenuous “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” sermonizing, where they rely on their congregations to “connect the dots” and figure out who they’re really talking about. Such an unseemly requirement does no good service to either our political or our religious discourse. My inclination in this area would be to lift the restriction on political speech for all non-profits (not just churches), so long as the organization’s activities are not primarily electoral in character (which the courts seem now to define as an expenditure of more than half of the group’s resources).

If black churches want to invite Democratic candidates to speak from the pulpit — which they routinely do now anyway — then they should be able to do so. Likewise, if white evangelical churches want to distribute voter guides that call out candidates by name for their morally objectionable stances, they should not be harassed by the IRS. The only alternatives would be the haphazard and capricious enforcement that we have now, or micro-monitoring of religious communications by government bureaucrats looking for any sign of impermissible politicization. Many religious organizations, with inclinations across the ideological spectrum, categorically reject the artificial and arbitrary distinction between the moral and the political. I am inclined to agree with them.


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