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Campaigning from the pulpit: Why not?

Editorial Column from Notre Dame Law Professor

Does politics have a place in the pulpit? Should places of worship be homes for engaged and unsettling activism — or tranquil havens, sealed off from the rough-and-tumble of today's bitter partisan debates?

These questions are both cutting-edge and perennial. Just a few weeks ago, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles proclaimed that the duty to care for vulnerable immigrants might trump the obligation to comply with restrictive immigration laws. Earlier this year — and again last week — dozens of ministers in Ohio complained to the IRS about two prominent evangelical pastors they say crossed the line between tax-exempt religious activities and partisan political campaigning. And the Sunday before the 2004 election, the pastor of a liberal congregation in Pasadena, Calif., raised eyebrows by delivering a hard-hitting anti-war sermon that criticized President Bush sharply and directly.

Of course, none of this is new.

Religious leaders and activists have always spoken provocatively — and even prophetically — about faith's implications for citizens, candidates, policies and elections. Not surprisingly, these reminders often prompt criticism and resistance in the pews, the news media and the public square. But we should neither demand nor expect our faith commitments or religious ministers to tell us only what we want to hear, or always to assure us that we and the status quo are doing just fine. What's more, it should not be the place of government officials or IRS agents to impose and enforce a line between pastors' stirring sermons and partisan stump speeches.

Jefferson's 'wall'

More than two centuries ago, attacks by Congregationalist ministers on Thomas Jefferson's religious views, character and presidential candidacy prompted Jefferson's famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, in which he proclaimed his "sovereign reverence" for the "wall of separation between Church & State" that, he thought, our Constitution constructs. But Jefferson's "wall" notwithstanding, our politics and public debates have always been awash in religious expression, argument and activism: From the revivalists of the Great Awakening who helped pave the way for the American Revolution to the God-drenched abolitionist movements that sparked a civil war; from the priests, ministers and rabbis who appealed to the nation's better angels during the civil rights movement to the clergy who today urge us to respect the lives of the unborn and vulnerable; from the presidential bids of the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson to the "God talk" that was a staple of the campaigns of Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and President Bush.

Nonetheless, it is often suggested that politics should be checked at the doors of our houses of worship and that the demands of faith should not reach beyond the realm of our private lives. So, given our laws, traditions and democratic values, how should we think about politics in the pulpit?

For starters, and with all due respect to Jefferson, the First Amendment does not constrain — in fact, it protects — "political" preaching and faith-filled activism. Yes, our Constitution preserves a healthy separation between the institutions of religion and government. This wise arrangement protects individual freedom and civil society by preventing the state from directing, co-opting or controlling the church. It imposes no limits, though, on conversations among religious believers — whether on Sunday morning, around the water cooler, or at the dinner table — about the implications of their faith for the controversies of the day. Our First Amendment protects religious freedom, individual conscience and church independence from government interference; it requires neither a faith-free public square nor politics-free sermons.

Even if the Constitution does not presume to tell ministers to stick to parables, is it bad citizenship, or just plain bad manners, for ministers to confuse our "public" role as citizens and voters with our supposedly "private" religious lives and beliefs? No. Religious faith makes claims, for better or worse, that push the believer inexorably toward charitable and conscientious engagement in "public life." To the extent that religion purports to provide insight into human nature and relations, it necessarily speaks to politics. We best respect each other through honest dialogue by making arguments that reflect our beliefs, not by censoring ourselves or insisting that religious believers translate their commitments into focus-group jargon or cost-benefit analysis.

Government's reach

True, there is the matter of the tax laws. Churches have, for centuries, for the most part been immune from taxes imposed by secular authority. Accordingly, the United States has long exempted corporations organized and operated exclusively for religious purposes from federal taxation. This exemption, however, comes at a price: Like other tax-exempt charitable organizations, religious communities may not engage in activities and expression that are regarded by government as excessively political (or, perhaps, as insufficiently religious).

It is the regulation of the churches' expression, and not their expression itself, that should raise constitutional red flags. Religious institutions are not above the law, but a government that respects the separation of church and state should be extremely wary of telling churches and religious believers whether they are being appropriately "religious" or excessively "political" or partisan. Churches and congregants, not bureaucrats and courts, must define the perimeter of religion's challenges. It should not be for the state to label as electioneering, endorsement, or lobbying what a religious community considers evangelism, worship or witness.

Of course, there are good reasons — religious reasons — for clergy to be cautious and prudent when addressing campaigns, issues and candidates.

Reasonable people with shared religious commitments still can disagree about many, even most, policy and political matters. It compromises religion to not only confine its messages to the Sabbath but also to pretend that it speaks clearly to every policy question. A hasty endorsement, or a clumsy or uncharitable political charge, has no place in a house of worship or during a time of prayer — not because religion does not speak to politics, but because it is about more, and is more important, than politics.

Richard W. Garnett is a Lilly Endowment associate professor of law at the University of Notre Dame.


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