Pulpit Freedom Sunday is October 7, 2012. On that day, the sermons of participating pastors will provide specific guidance about how to vote on issues and candidates. This is, of course, their First Amendment right. However, doing so may endanger the tax-exempt status of their churches and ministries. That’s precisely the point, of course: to initiate a legal challenge to limits on the political speech of the leaders of tax-exempt, non-profit institutions, including churches and ministries, with the hope of seeing those limits overturned.
Personally, I think Pulpit Freedom Sunday is a terrible idea, regardless of the merit of the legal ideas underlying it. First, preachers are ministers of the gospel, not experts on public policy. Pulpit Freedom Sunday tempts preachers to speak beyond their areas of competence. Second, while the gospel outlines clear moral standards, the application of those standards to public policy is not always straightforward. This means that Christians committed to the same moral standard may disagree about the best application of that standard in the public square. When pastors advocate one application through their sermons, they needlessly divide congregants on an issue where they should be free to disagree. Third, advocating specific legislation or candidates through the sermon may constitute a needless stumbling block to a person’s acceptance of the gospel. If I read the St. Paul correctly, the only stumbling block to the gospel should be the Cross of Christ. Fourth, while I recognize that there may be kairos moments where the gospel itself is at stake and the churches must take an explicit, prophetic stance against the State or for the Opposition, I don’t think we’re at that moment or anywhere near that moment in America.
One more thing: I sincerely doubt that the Supreme Court is going to overturn the so-called Johnson Amendment any time soon. The so-called Johnson Amendment is that part of the tax code which gives tax-exempt, non-profit institutions limited freedom to advocate on issues but no freedom to advocate for candidates. Pastors have a First Amendment right to advocate for issues and candidates, but they don’t have a First Amendment right to tax-exempt status.
For the reasons I outlined above, and because I believe that a church’s tax-exempt status is advantageous to its ministry, I encourage pastors and church’s to ignore Pulpit Freedom Sunday. Preach the gospel! Preach the Bible! But don’t confuse your public policy preferences or favored candidates with either!
For more on what tax law permits and prohibits tax-exempt churches from doing with regard to issues and candidates, see “Election Year Dos and Don’ts” by Richard Hammar.
*The view expressed in this blog post is the personal opinion of George P. Wood and does not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Enrichment journal or the views of the Assemblies of God National Leadership and Resource Center