Prophets or Partisans?

Editorial

Published October 03, 2012, issue of October 05, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

October 7 is Pulpit Freedom Sunday, when hundreds of pastors are expected to openly violate the law of the land and preach politics from the pulpit. The law they intend to violate is known as the Johnson Amendment. Enacted in 1954 and sponsored by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, it limits the amount of political activity churches, charities and any other 501(c)3 non-profit organizations may engage in while claiming tax-exempt status.

In 2008, when Pulpit Freedom Sunday began, 33 pastors participated; last year, organizers said the number swelled to 539. Who knows how many more will join the call in this partisan-charged year? Just in the last few weeks, a Catholic priest in Texas told his parishioners in writing not to reelect President Obama, while priests in Wisconsin are holding weekly “rosary rallies” to pray for GOP vice presidential candidate and native son Paul Ryan.

The Catholic church admonished its Texas priest but so far the Internal Revenue Service has taken no actions against these flagrant acts, either by design or by indifference. That has only encouraged those who believe that their First Amendment rights are unfairly denied because they can’t use their sermons as campaign advertisements. Nonsense. Non-profit status is a privilege, not a right, and with it comes the prohibition against overt partisanship. (That is why the Forward, also a 501(c)3, does not endorse candidates on these pages.)

But where should these restrictions begin and end? What about clergy who engage in politics away from the pulpit?

It’s a live question this year, what with Rabbis for Obama and rabbinic all-but-endorsements for Mitt Romney. The advent of new technology has enabled anyone, clergy included, to broadcast their support of a political candidate, take partisan stands in public, and promote fundraisers on Facebook. Even if this activity is legal, is it right?

It’s certainly not popular. In the national survey that provides the basis for their seminal book, “Amazing Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” Robert Putnam and David Campbell argue that “Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of political persuasion by religious leaders.” This opposition is both deep and broad, and does not vary much by religion. Evangelicals don’t want to hear politics from their pastors (75%) anymore than Jews want to hear it from their rabbis (77%).

Interestingly, Jews report the highest level of political sermons among the religious groups surveyed, with 50% saying that they hear such sermons at least monthly. Mormons report the lowest amount, 10%, though this data is from 2006, before Romney’s nomination.

And notwithstanding the clearly right-leaning motives behind Pulpit Freedom Sunday, Putnam and Campbell’s research contends that it is liberals who get more politics at church than conservatives. “[T]hese results might seem surprising,” they acknowledge. “Isn’t it the right, not the left, that draws on churches to mobilize its political troops? A longer historical view, however, reminds us that many denominations have long been catalysts for political action on socially progressive, left-leaning causes.”

This recalls what is so noble about the involvement of religious leaders in social justice causes — from opposing slavery to marching for civil rights, from Soviet Jewry to Darfur — but it also highlights the troubling dilemma of where to draw the line. What bothers the left today can offend the right tomorrow. Speaking directly from the pulpit or otherwise using religious authority to promote a particular candidate is an obvious red line. The Johnson Amendment performs a useful civic function and, not incidentally, mirrors the opinion of the American people.

Religious leaders who use their position to promote candidates and partisan causes off the pulpit must do so judiciously, however, recognizing that when speaking as individual citizens, their collars or their kippot might still be visible, even in the mind’s eye. Faith has an essential place in the public square, but its role should be more prophetic than partisan.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.