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Pulpit Freedom Sunday

Posted: September 29, 2008 - 18:13 CT

Throughout our history, church pastors have, with great passion, spoken Scriptural truth from the pulpit about government and culture.  Indeed, America owes a great degree of its independence to the moral impact proceeding from the pulpit.  D James Kennedy writes that "The road to American freedom was paved in large part by the pulpits of New England.  Sermons from the colonial era helped to shape the American understanding that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God".  Pastors became such a force for freedom during the Great Awakening that they became known as the "Black Regiment" (named for the color of their robes).  Even John Wingate Thornton (1818-1878), a lawyer, historian and sometimes critic of colonization, wrote "To the Pulpit, the Puritan Pulpit, we owe the moral force which won our independence".

Since our founding, anointed preachers have proclaimed Scriptural truth on the many great moral issues of their time such as slavery, child labor, prostitution, and racial discrimination.  In the past, pastors did not hesitate to speak from the pulpit for and against various candidates for government office based upon the Word of God.

This all changed in 1954 with the passage of the “Johnson amendment” to the Internal Revenue Code proposed by Democratic Senator Lyndon Johnson, who later became president.  This legislation was Johnson's attempt to silence churches by restricting the right of pastors to proclaim Biblical truth about political candidates running for office.  The amendment threatened the tax-exempt status of  churches and other non-profit organizations for supporting or opposing a candidate for office.  The IRS, with support from radical organizations like the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, have used this law, a clear violation of free speech, to intimidate and silence any church that dares to speak Scriptural truth about candidates or issues.  It is interesting that these organizations are conspicuously silent when a liberal Democratic candidate visits a church, even when the service turns into a political rally and fundraiser for the candidate.

This election season, churches and pastors are fighting back against the threats and speaking up about their positions.  Churches and pastors have a constitutional right to freely declare the whole truth of God from the pulpit, even recommending a particular candidate or platform, without fear of losing their tax exemption.  There are also several legal organizations specializing in the defense of religious liberty, which are coming to the aid of the churches.  I have listed some links at the end of this article.

While some churches are outright challenging the IRS, others seek to impact the elections without a direct confrontation.  According to the Liberty Counsel based in Orlando, pastors can still preach on biblical and moral issues, such as abortion and traditional marriage, can urge the congregation to register and vote, and can overview the positions of the candidates.  Churches may distribute nonpartisan voter guides, register voters, provide transportation to the polls, hold candidate forums, introduce visiting candidates and support voter initiatives such as marriage amendments.

Should Churches be involved in politics?

While churches clearly have a constitutional right to free speech involving political issues, should they, and if so, to what extent should they be involved in politics?  This subject deserves much more space than we can give in this posting, so we'll offer some thoughts here, and save the more detailed writings for other sections.

If we put this question in front of several Christian leaders today, we'll likely received several different answers.  D James Kennedy believed the passage "fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen 1:28) to be a cultural mandate.  Others cite the "salt and light" passages in Matthew 5:13-16.  Still others have even claimed the "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's" (Mt 22:21) as a mandate of involvement.   John MacArthur, on the other hand, believes that pastors should avoid politics in the pulpit altogether.

My personal thoughts is that both pastors and Christians  have a right to be involved, and bring their informed moral values to the table in political matters.  Some believe that they have a right to hold a moral Christian belief, but no right to force this belief on others.  Even though most immoral people don't hesitate in their attempt to force their beliefs on us, we as Christians should not force our beliefs on others, but we certainly have the right of persuasion.  All parties should have the right to express their opinions and beliefs, then let the majority rule.  After all, the beliefs of the voting majority, whether moral or immoral will become law, except in the cases in which liberal activist judges become involved and legislate from the bench.

So, even though churches have the right to be involved in politics, I believe they should proceed with caution.  We should be aware of how the world sees us.  If you ask the average person on the street what he or she thinks of the church, the answer will often be given in political rather than in religious terms.  I think much of this is due to the liberal secular media, but some blame must also be assumed by the church herself.  Many people get their only knowledge of the church from the media, the majority of whom have never set foot in a church.  A reporter usually only knows of the church by its involvement in worldly matters.  Therefore,  churches and Christians  must conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of our calling (Eph 4:1-3).

We must be known first and foremost for preaching the good news of Jesus Christ.  This is ultimately the only way that we'll bring lasting change to society.  For example, we should fight for legislation to protect the unborn child, but our main objective should be getting the Gospel to perspective parents.  Perhaps Dr Kennedy struck the best balance in that he was often preaching against immoral laws, but his main thrust was spreading the Gospel through his various ministries, including Evangelism Explosion (the first ministry to take the Gospel to every country) and the Center for Christian Statesmanship, which offered spiritual counsel to members of Congress and their staffs.

We as Christians must also recognize the limitations of government.  Government is not the ultimate power and authority.  Government can't solve all our problems and certainly can't save us.  We should not put our trust in government, which is nothing short of idolatry, but in the God who is sovereign over all.

I've often heard talk, even among Christians, that Christianity will greatly suffer if a certain political party gains power over all branches  of government.  While the individual rights of Christians certainly diminish  under a hostile administration, history has shown that Christianity itself can still flourish.  Even today, Christians are still relatively free to worship and minister in western European countries and yet, the Church is practically dead in France in England.  In contrast, Christianity is exploding under some of the most repressive regimes such as China, Russia, and many eastern European, Middle Eastern and African nations.

To conclude, I believe it's time that pastors and Christians reclaim our right to free speech in the political realm, but we should also keep our activities in perspective.  As with all other pursuits, we should prayerfully seek the will of God, attempting to accomplish them in such a way as to not lose our witness.  The constitution guarantees us the right to free speech in a legal sense, but morally, we should evaluate all our actions, political or otherwise, within the context of the Word of God.  Finally, we must always consider that, even though God often uses us to accomplish his perfect will, the battle ultimately belongs to the Lord.

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October 24, 2008 - 18:43
Julia - Howardsville, VA writes:

I agree that the government continues to chip away at the rights of Christians in our country.  I think that a pastor should be able to speak about issues in a non-partisan way, but endorsing a candidate is going to far if they want to be tax-exempt.

October 25, 2008 - 14:49
Webmaster replies:

I appreciate your input Julia.  According to federal law, tax-exempt nonprofit IRC 501(c)(3)  organizations  are generally permitted to "lobby" to some extent, but are prohibited from engaging in "political activity".  While many churches have chosen to incorporate under the 501(c)(3), I believe the original intent of the founding fathers was that churches fell outside of the 501 statutes (there's actually over two dozen 501 non-profit categories).  Prior to the Johnson amendment, churches rarely even sought "non-profit status" since they were not considered to be under the  taxing authority of the government.  The First Amendment to the US Constitution clearly places the church outside the jurisdiction of the civil government when it states that "Congress shall make NO LAW respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof."  Religion which is taxed was not considered free.  The founding fathers also opposed any taxes on the church because of her contribution to society, both morally and monetarily.  Most of the original hospitals, universities and charities, just to name a few, were initially established by the churches.

The other problem with the Johnson amendment, like most other politically motivated statutes, is that it tends to be applied selectively.  I touched on this in the article, but to give another example, Planned Parenthood, a 501(c)(3) organization, not only endorses candidates, but also regularly makes campaign contributions.  This liberal organization not only does this without losing its tax exemption, but continues to receive millions of dollars annually in government entitlements!

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