It is tempting to shrug off the campaign known as Pulpit Freedom Sunday as a futile attempt to change settled constitutional law. After all, among the thousands upon thousands of preachers who took to the pulpit across America on the final Sunday of September — and thousands of other clergy who addressed their congregations at other times during that weekend — only 31 pastors chose to knowingly defy federal law and instruct their flock to vote a certain way come November. That final number is fewer than the 50 first recruited last spring by the Alliance Defense Fund in its attempt to overturn a 54-year-old ban on political endorsements by tax-exempt houses of worship. And it’s far fewer than the 217 clergy who signed a public pledge from the Interfaith Alliance agreeing not to endorse a candidate on behalf of their churches, mosques and synagogues.
Plus, it’s a safe bet that those 31 pastors preached to the choir. Many clergy, especially those who lead large, influential and therefore diverse congregations, are understandably hesitant to color their pastoral mission with the reds and blues of a political campaign.
Still, these few and far-flung protesting pastors poked a finger in the eye of the Internal Revenue Service and American law, and that should not be ignored. According to news reports of some of the sermons, there was no mistaking their intentions (or their political leanings). “As Christians, it’s clear we should vote for John McCain,” the Rev. Francis Pultro told 45 people in Philadelphia from the stage of Calvary Chapel on the King’s Highway. “We must vote against the candidacy of Senator Barack Obama. Amen,” was how the Rev. Richard Bacon closed his sermon at Faith Presbyterian Church in Rowlett, Texas.
These defiant words were wrapped in the rhetoric of free speech, but that’s nonsense. The law is not stopping Pultro and Bacon from expressing their beliefs on the worthiness of presidential candidates in private or in public — only from the pulpit of an institution that enjoys direct support from American taxpayers and, in return, agrees to remain neutral in political races.
Nor is the traditional role of the clergy, to speak in a prophetic voice against the social ills and injustices of the day — be they war, segregation, child labor or the genocide in Darfur — compromised by this speech restriction, contrary to what the ADF argues. In fact, there is more than 200 years’ worth of evidence that America’s novel attempt to free religion from government and government from religion has enabled both to carry on their important work.
If those 31 pastors want to continue to use the power of their pulpits to directly influence the ongoing presidential election — or any election, for that matter — then their churches should forgo their tax exemptions and disentangle themselves completely from the limitations that come with such a privilege. If not, the IRS should appropriately pursue those who violate the letter of the law and the spirit that has maintained a healthy distance between worship on Sunday and voting on Tuesday.