Pulpit Freedom Sunday was, its organizers proclaimed, a success. At more than 1,500 churches around the country — mostly, it seemed from small communities outside the big cities — preachers defied the Internal Revenue Service this past Sunday and preached politics from the pulpit.
Must have been scintillating. As Stephen Colbert said, Pulpit Freedom Sunday is when “the thrill of lengthy sermons finally meets the excitement of tax policy.”
And that’s the real question, isn’t it? The aim of this exercise of civil disobedience, which more and more pastors participate in each year, is to challenge the IRS on the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 rule that says that, for the privilege of being a tax-exempt organization, churches may not openly endorse a political candidate.
As I’ve written in editorials, this rule is an entirely sensible compromise that doesn’t hamper free speech — the pastors are free to say what they want off the pulpit — and is the price all churches pay for the privilege of foregoing taxes and maintaining an opacity that few other not-for-profits enjoy.
But what the pastors don’t seem to realize in their zeal is that their congregants don’t want to hear such sermons. The vast majority of those polled in a major national research project conducted by Robert Putnam at Harvard University said that they disapproved of any attempts by religious leaders to promote partisan causes. And a July survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 66% of Americans do not want their churches or other houses of worship to publicly favor one candidate or another.
People go to church and synagogue and mosques for religious teaching, communal support and spiritual sustenance, not campaign commercials. And given how polarizing this election has become, for the sake of what we Jews call “shalom bayit” — peace in the house — it’s probably better for the overall health of the congregation to stay away from such matters. The pastors who openly violate the law may think they are doing the right thing, but I’m willing to bet that many of their congregants were unmoved. If they were awake.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.