Horse Manure, Ice Cream, and Pulpit Endorsements

Matthew 7: 9-11

“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

Several weeks ago reported on the Alliance Defense Fund and their decision to play chicken with the IRS by endorsing candidates from church pulpits and daring the tax guys to yank their status.

These folks aren’t nuts. Because we are never able to predict with complete accuracy the kinds of things that people will do in the future, we never know for sure whether a particular behavior will be interpreted as breaking a law or not until we actually do it and see. So if we want to discover the limits of a particular law or regulation, we have no choice but to engage in behavior that might push those limits and risk legal sanction. The courts do not hear hypothetical cases, so occasionally political groups will intentionally engage in actions previously assumed to be illegal in order to force law enforcement’s hand. Once the courts become involved, then the process of legal argumentation can begin and Constitutional issues can be raised. In essence, what these groups are seeking is clarity through confrontation – the only way that we can know for sure whether a specific action counts as a case of a general rule is to make the courts decide the case, interpret the law, and clarify its boundaries. That, in essence, is what the Alliance Defense Fund did on Sunday, September 28 when they sponsored Pulpit Freedom Sunday. They broke the law, in word if not in spirit, and asked the courts to clarify the legality of the IRS rules that forbid the endorsement of candidates from non-profit religious organizations.

I’ve talked about it before here in Le Blog, but at the time I treated it in the abstract. I concentrated on the absurdity of the question of “Who Would Jesus Endorse?” I’ve had some time to stew on the topic and now it is time to talk about the danger a rash of pulpit endorsements might pose to the church.

A Philosophical and Sociological Digression:

One of the classic Liberal understandings of the purpose or justification for government is that government exists to regulate contracts between free persons. This understanding of government was developed by Max Weber and sociologists of his school, and it has at least two variations. First, only those contracts are legal that are explicitly sanctioned by the government; in other words, unless an action is explicitly sanctioned, it is forbidden. Second, all contracts are legal except those that are forbidden by the government; in other words, unless expressly forbidden, an action is legal. Here “contracts” is used in an expansive sense to cover any form of exchange between persons. Totalitarian societies tend to reserve power to the state and uphold the first model of government while Liberal societies uphold the later model. Ignoring for the moment the Totalitarian model, let’s consider the kinds of contracts that Liberal societies might forbid.

You cannot exchange nuclear weapons.

You cannot exchange or traffic in people.

Some contracts are limited based on the age of participants: alcohol, guns, tobacco, etc.

Some drugs cannot be exchanged.

The direct exchange of goods for political favors is forbidden.

For Liberal societies it is much easier to list the kinds of contracts that are forbidden than to list those that are permitted since the operative assumption is that consensual exchange between free persons is legal in all cases not expressly forbidden. Thus, the government has two basic roles. First, the government is responsible for enforcing the rules forbidding particular kinds of contracts, such as those listed above. Second, the government operates as a guarantor of contracts both explicit and implicit, the most important implicit contract being the right of free persons to hold themselves and their property inviolate. In short, the government serves to encourage the free exchange of goods and services by protecting the right to private property. So theft, fraud, and extortion are all illegal as are deceptive or false contracts. Of course this description is a sociological ideal, one that actual societies rarely embody.

This model of government is the general ideal of most Liberal societies and the Liberal Democracies of the world all follow its general outlines. It is minimalist in the sense that government’s primary role is as a guarantor of free exchange among people. However, each society recognizes certain goods or values that are so important that the government, as the embodiment of the will of the people, must directly or indirectly provide them. Thus the state takes on the burden of protecting itself from outside forces by maintaining a military. Some governments maintain public transportation systems (roads, rails and airlines) and educational systems. Famously, most European Liberal Democracies consider healthcare a critical value and thus opt to provide health care to all of their citizens, while the United States treats healthcare as any other service that should be exchanged on the open market. The key point for us to note is that in order to perform its function – and both conservatives and progressives agree that the government has some necessary functions – the government needs money. Therefore, in exchange for guaranteeing the free exchange of goods among the citizenry, the government takes a percentage of each exchange for itself in the form of taxes. Government provides an invaluable service and extracts remuneration. Thus far both ends of the American political spectrum would agree.

Officially, the government is entirely neutral about most exchanges of private property. It could care less whether you sell coffee and buy hammers or buy paper and sell watermelons. However, there are some forms of exchange that citizens and the government alike recognize as having a value above and beyond the value of the actual goods being exchanged. In terms of cash value, these exchanges may be quite small, but since they provide social goods that are immeasurable, the government treats them differently. When a parishioner pays a tithe to a church, when a philanthropist builds a new wing on a hospital, when an alumnus writes a check to support a college scholarship, and when citizens donate property to relief organizations these exchanges are treated differently than other everyday exchanges of goods because the government has decided that they have a value beyond their mere cash value. The rules governing donations and non-profit finances are different than those that regulate other forms of exchange. Perhaps most importantly, when we give money to non-profits and churches in the United States the government (as an embodiment of the collective will) does not step in to extract a tax. It sees a social utility in the exchange of goods and services among religious groups and their members that ought to be passively encouraged through the act of governmental restraint. No one ever puts it so prosaically, but in plain speech: we don’t tax charitable and church donations because we think that they are worth more than the taxes that they might generate. Thus a kind of bargain is struck between the churches and the government regarding the exchange of goods and services. The church agrees to hold itself to a certain standard of service (no dividends paid to shareholders or skimming off the top Jim Baker!) and in exchange the government does not tax churches as it does other bodies that receive funds and dispense services.

End of Digression

This is a delicate balance in the U.S. and it is under threat today, not by the government but by those who would extend the actions of churches into the political realm by endorsing candidates from the pulpit. Abstractly and theologically I’m not sure that there is anything wrong with this. There are certainly times when preachers need to state obvious political truths from the pulpit – Anti-Semitism is wrong, slavery is wrong, segregation is wrong – and sometimes preachers may need to attach the names of specific political figures to their condemnations or endorsements. But let us be clear, when we do so, we prophetically step outside of our traditional social role and violate the terms of the agreement that most Liberal governments strike with the churches. Sometimes this is necessary, but we should be prepared to pay the price – to pay it willingly! When we enter the political realm, we run the risk of losing our protected status. Jesus knew the risk, and he accepted the consequences. Luther knew the risks and consequences. Bonhoeffer knew the risks and the consequences. King knew the risks and consequences. (Only one of these men escaped with his life!) In extreme situations, if direct political endorsements or condemnations are necessary – think of the prophetic role that Christian churches might have played in 1930s Germany had more of them been willing to lose their socially privileged status – then we should make them and deal with the financial ramifications. So if the price for political endorsements is taxation then render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.

However an additional and even greater threat to the integrity of the church lurks behind the scenes and has gone largely unnoticed and uncommented upon. It is a danger that makes mere taxation look like 5 minutes spent in the penalty box. There is an old saying regarding the mixing of horse manure and ice cream. The ice cream doesn’t much hurt the horse manure, but the manure sure messes up the ice cream! The point here being that churches, when they engage in politics, don’t much hurt the political system, but direct political involvement can sure mess up the churches! I’m not much worried about what pulpit endorsements will do to our politics, but I am very much concerned about the effect these actions will have on our churches. The IRS rules that the Alliance Defense Fund is so concerned to challenge actually protect the integrity of our pulpits and our witness.

Please, indulge me for a moment in a bit of imaginative projection.

A candidate for state office, strapped for cash but unable to raise additional funds due to campaign finance regulations, turns to his wealthy friends for help.

These wealthy friends bend the ear of a local minister and convince him to give a series of sermons that endorse their candidate. The request is accompanied by several healthy and “tax deductible” donations to the church.

Lured by the promise of additional funds other congregations from the same denomination begin to offer sermons in support of the candidate and watch as their weekly collections go up. The denomination organizes rallies, prints yard signs, and donates space in church basements for the campaign.

The candidate and his campaign offer helpful suggestions on sermon topics and provide text for church marquees. Bulletin covers bear the candidates image, the denomination’s website hosts a link to the candidate’s website.

In November the denominationally backed candidate wins, and soon thereafter zoning laws are rewritten. The denomination breaks ground on its new conference center and denominational headquarters.

An international corporation wants to build a processing center in the state, but environmental regulations and current labor laws will cost them several millions of dollars. They cannot fund the newly elected politician directly, but suddenly find Jesus and give two million dollars to the denomination. 1 million goes to build the new conference center and one million goes to fund the newly created “political ministries” center.

By the time the next election rolls around the conference center is up and running, the processing center is under construction, labor and environmental laws have been gutted and the”political ministries” machine is pumping nearly 1 million dollars into its campaign to support the incumbent.

That is how horse manure ruins ice cream and it isn’t at all far fetched because we’ve seen it happen time and time again in much less subtle ways as the churches are co-opted to support politicians and political programs that fly in the face of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Two examples spring to mind:

1930s Germany.

Mid-1800s Confederate States (to cite only one period in which churches in North America supported slavery)

If the churches can be politically co-opted to support genocide and slavery, then of course they can be manipulated to serve the interests of a politician or political party – and the danger does not come wholly from the political Right.

I get it. I understand that it is a free speech issue. I understand that IRS regulations are designed in some fashion to control or delimit the content of religious and political speech. But Evangelicals need to ask in a non-ideological fashion whether or not present IRS regulations dictating that tax-exempt churches not endorse specific candidates really hamper the church’s ability to preach the Gospel. When the world is desperate for the straight truth regarding salvation through Jesus and asking for the Bread of Life, are we not offering them stones instead when we preach politicians in lieu of Christ? When we use our resources and precious pulpit time to defend our right as ministers to engage in political speech are we not offering snakes to a world pleading for fish? Is there really a desperate need for further political punditry? Are we not already awash in endorsements? Why fight and litigate for the right to serve up horse manure when we are already drowning in BS? We are not just diluting our witness; we are ruining our ice cream.

So to the Alliance Defense Fund, the ministers handing over their pulpits to punditry, and all of the Christians on the Left and Right who are cheering this development on, take a long look at what our present political campaign has become and ask yourselves, do we really want this for our church? Is this the best that we can do? Can we not think of truths that the world is much more desperately in need of? Is politics really the best that our Heavenly Father has given us to share with the world?

Take a look at The Wall Street Journal’s article on the topic.

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