Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Texas Faith: Should we allow politicking from the pulpit?

Read all the responses in the Dallas Morning News here.
Tue, Sep 30, 2008
Wayne Slater

Texas Faith, our weekly discussion of matters of religion, politics and culture takes on a matter of particular interest this election season: politicking from the pulpit. Jesus certainly had his encounters with tax collectors but apparently was never limited by tax law on what he could say in the Sermon on the Mount.

A group called the Alliance Defense Fund encouraged pastors this past weekend to turn their sermons into partisan stump speeches. The ADF wants to establish a legal class to challenge the IRS restriction. Which prompts this week's question to our panel:

Is the federal ban against partisan politics from the pulpit - including endorsing candidates - a good thing or should it be thrown out? Is the government violating the separation of church and state when it tells individual churches how it can or cannot practice politics?
After the jump, what our distinguished panel had to say on the issue:

KATIE SHERROD, Independent writer and producer; progressive Episcopalian activist, Fort Worth
The ban does not prevent ministers from preaching about political issues -- indeed, priests, pastors, and ministers preach about politics every time they preach the Gospel. Jesus was a very political animal. It's one of the reasons they killed him. What's more, how does one talk about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, without talking about politics?

What is does prevent is priests/ministers/pastors using their privileged positions of power in the pulpit to endorse specific candidates.

The government is not violating the separation of church and state with this ban, because it is not telling individual churches how they can or cannot practice politics. The members of any church are as free as any other citizen to act in whatever political manner they chose, informed by whatever values they bring to bear on that choice. The ban focuses only on endorsements from the pulpit by the minister, priest, pastor as well as rabbis, imams, etc.

How do the ministers who "defied" the ban this past Sunday feel about Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and even Catholic leaders endorsing candidates from the pulpit? It was the conservative protestant churches who were the most worried about the Vatican running the United States government when John F. Kennedy was running for president. They certainly were not in favor of endorsements from the pulpit then!

But in the end, I have to wonder why members of these churches are assumed to be religious robots ready to be programmed to vote for whomever their minister endorses. It's not as if Christians, evangelical or otherwise, do everything else their ministers exhort them to do or not do.

GERALD BRITT, vice president, Central Dallas Ministries
The issue is deeper than the government mandating how Christians (or those of other faiths) are involved in politics. There are times when the engagment of people, all along the faith continuum, may have to engage government and the political process in all sorts of ways. I just believe that there is more at stake. We are a pluralistic society. We compete politically in the public square with the interests of other groups, civic, religious, commercial and otherwise. You don't win, by declaring a holy war on everyone who doesn't believe the way you do. Nor is it wise, in a country founded on 'Judeo-Christian' principles, to declare that the only true 'believers' are the ones who vote the way you do.

Churches, whatever they teach, have the right to provide education on any issue that they feel impacts their community or the nation. Preachers have the responsibility to share their perspective on issues based on their interpretation of the scriptures. Responsible scholarship should make sure that such interpretation is as accurate as possible. Responsible citizenship requires an informed electorate and that information should be in consonance with the values of the voter - including the values taught by his or her faith tradition. But beyond that, all pastors, ministers and church bodies, should be careful of entanglements that can come with endorsements.
We have recently s
een a faction of our church entertain the world as theological contortionists - because in order to softly endorse a candidate, they have to deal with some issues that represent true doctrinal problems. But this is what happens when religion becomes hungry for secular power. Its hardly a new problem, but it is a real problem.

Those of us in the church who aren't spiritual enough to recognize the problem, ought to at least be too smart to keep falling into the same trap.

RIC DEXTER, Soka Gakkai International-USA, Dallas
The United States of America is the most religious of developed nations. This can be attributed to the guarantees in our First Amendment. The state acts as a neutral protector of the right to practice one's faith. It guards our beliefs from dictates of the government, and shields our government from the dictates of a religion.

We need only look to nations without this protection to see the value of keeping politics out of the pulpit. In the Middle East two religious schools following a single teacher vie for political control with support from their churches. Religious leaders induced a state to destroy cultural relics because of the faith they represented. In Imperial Japan people were jailed as "thought criminals" for not recognizing the state's religious authority. In Europe two political cultures fought violently, both citing religious justification from the same teacher. One state marked an entire religion for extermination. In Latin America the power struggle between the state and the majority religion is part of their history.

As member of a minority religion (approximately 0.9% of the US population identify themselves as Buddhist) the twin protections of free expression and non-establishment are for me especially appreciated.

Religious leaders can use the pulpit to teach great religious principles, address the great moral and ethical issues of the day, and urge their congregants to vote. They should not tell them how to vote. Our church leaders are no more qualified than any of us at deciding who should get our vote.

Rev. Dr. DANIEL C. KANTER, First Unitarian Church of Dallas
I believe that one's faith and values should guide the choices we make when we vote, but I have learned a lot about how politics can invade the church, and have vowed not to make endorsements. I believe in the pulpit's responsibility to express values relevant to current events and society's health, which some may consider political issues--it's a fine line, for sure. I also reserve the right to quote political leaders on issues such as poverty, race, justice, etc.

I've done this in the past, though I have no plan to do so in the run up to this election. I also preach in the context of a history in which Unitarian Universalists have long stood for the right of a free pulpit and for the separation of church and state. The division is so important. Religion has flourished in this nation and made amazing contributions to our country because of its freedom from government. The government should operate without the impingement of religion or under the assumption that we are nation dominated by one religious perspective. For a church to make a similar assumption and believe that there is one political ideology within its walls is a mistake. We aim for diversity of opinion and will worship this season without endorsing candidates or breaking the law.

Read all the responses and comments in the Dallas Morning News here.

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