Politics in the pulpit

Posted on September 3, 2008

Janet Jones protests policies of war every ThursdayOn October 31, 2004, the Rev George Regas delivered a sermon at All Saints Church in Pasadena. It was not an unusual thing to see this firebrand of a former rector in the pulpit, and parishioners had grown to expect a prophetic message with deep social commentary. Regas had preached sermons condemning the Vietnam War and the Gulf War, and this Halloween sermon was preached in the context of increasing violence and a growing insurgency in Iraq and news of US casualties and the insurgent takeover of Fallujah, and it came two days before citizens of the United States would go to the polls to choose between George W. Bush and John Kerry for president.

In the sermon, Regas imagined a debate between Bush, Kerry, and Jesus, and after telling the gathered congregation that he did not intend to tell them how to vote, he went on to say that “Good people of profound faith will be for either George Bush or John Kerry for reasons deeply rooted in their faith.” He then preached a sermon that offered critiques from Jesus (based in Christ’s words from the Gospels) of both candidates. But it is fair to say that the policies in existence under the incumbent’s presidency drew the greatest criticism, as they were the policies being debated in the real presidential debates and by the talking heads and pundits throughout the campaign.

The sermon was interrupted several times by applause, and then prayers were said, bread was broken, and everyone went on about their lives. Two days later Americans went to the polls and re-elected Bush for his second term.

The following June, the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints, Pasadena, received a letter from the IRS that said, “a reasonable belief exists that you may not be tax-exempt as a church under IRC (Internal Revenue Code) section 501(a).”

It is IRC 501(c)(3) that gives churches and other non-profit organizations their tax-exempt status, and 501(a) simply states that this is the case. According to the IRS, any organization that holds a tax exempt status may lose that status if, “any of the activities (whether or not substantial) of your organization consist of participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
The code goes on to say, “Whether your organization is participating or intervening, directly or indirectly, in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of each case.” If an organization is deemed by the IRS to be in violation of its tax-exempt status, then the offense is called “campaign intervention.”

The interpretation of whether campaign intervention did in fact happen at All Saints seems somewhat subjective. In a sermon preached one year after Regas’ sermon, Bacon told parishioners that “the IRS is arguing that they can investigate a church based on a field officer’s subjective determination that a preacher’s sermon implicitly opposes or endorses candidates regardless of the explicit statements of the preacher. This means that any sermon which states a church’s core values when proclaimed during an election season can be subjectively deemed to be campaign intervention.”

On September 10, 2007, the IRS brought the case to a close, stating that “the Church’s actions lead us to the conclusion that the Church intervened in the 2004 Presidential election campaign. We note that this appears to be a one-time occurrence and that you appear to have policies in place to ensure that the Church complies with the prohibition against intervention in campaigns for public office.” In other words, the IRS found the sermon to be an act of campaign intervention, was satisfied by the policies against intervention that All Saints had in place, and concluded that the church could retain its tax exemption.

In a press release released several days after the IRS’s letter closing the case, Bacon stated, “While we are pleased that the IRS examination is finally over, the IRS has failed to explain its conclusion regarding the single sermon at issue. Synagogues, mosques, and churches across America have no more guidance about the IRS rules now than when we started this process over two long years ago. The impact of this letter leaves a chilling effect cast over the freedom of America’s pulpits to preach core moral values. We have no choice but to demand clarification on this matter with the IRS.”

To this day, the IRS has not provided more clarification in the case, and preachers from every corner of the Christian spectrum have expressed support for All Saints’ position and their demand for further clarification.

Now we find ourselves in a political season once again. Our bishop and many clergy in this diocese have publically expressed opposition to California Proposition 8, the ballot initiative intended to overturn the state supreme court’s May 2008 decision granting marriage rites to same-sex couples. The decisions you make when you consider many city and county propositions or ballot initiatives might come from a deep personal consideration of your core Christian values. And even the candidates you consider … do your religious beliefs inform whom you vote for?

Politics: What’s a preacher to do?

According to the Rev. Anne Howard, executive director of the Beatitudes Society, it is simply a good rule of thumb to remember that the people in the pews are smart, thinking people. “You don’t ever hammer people over the head and tell them how to vote.”

“Preachers must always speak prophetically about political issues. If we are going to speak about hunger, or the environment, or healthcare, we need to do so prophetically. To be prophetic is to speak about those things in ways that get people to consider them deeply, but we cannot back the candidate who supports specific issues. But, speaking prophetically, we can ask people to consider what the issues are as they consider their choice.”

Legally, a church can take positions on public policy, specific pieces of legislation, and even on ballot measures or initiatives. Although it is not a good practice for a preacher to tell people how to vote, it is always good for a congregation to come together to take a public stance that lets politicians and the public know that core Christian values support or reject specific policies or initiatives.

Regas was empowered to preach a sermon critical of the Bush administration’s Iraq War policies because in 1988 the congregation had decided as a body that they were “A Peace Church” and that they would preach that Jesus is a “peacemaker” from their understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Helping seminarians learn the skills of tying faith values to an informed citizenship is what the Beatitudes Society is all about. “It is about being engaged in public life,” says Howard. “That is what we are working on with our students, to help their congregations grapple with public and political issues, and one way to do that is to guarantee safe and open elections. That’s the type of thing that a preacher can preach about, being what Martin Marty calls a ‘Citizen Believer.’”

The Episcopal Church has an office in Washington DC that is focused on government relations and public policy. The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations oversees the Episcopal Public Policy Network (a church-wide network of concerned Episcopalians) and advocates for issues of importance to all Episcopalians (as expressed in our General Convention). There are also groups like Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation that advocate for improving the quality of life of world citizens by advocating for the Millennium Development Goals. Each of these groups looks at the core values of our faith, then seeks to promote passage of law and implementation of policy that promotes these values.

Every Episcopalian is invited to join the Episcopal Public Policy Network and Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation and to help educate your congregation and your community about matters of civic importance. Every person of faith is encouraged to speak publically about how their beliefs inform their understanding of the issues. And every American has a responsibility to strive for a better life for all of our citizens and for the citizens of the world.