Religion and politics are the two topics to avoid in polite company, and pastors should never talk about the latter. At least that’s what we’re told. So when the Associate Press (AP) got a hold of a leaked video of Gov. Bevin encouraging a group of pastors to boldly speak to the social issues they sounded the alarm. The AP reported that the governor “urged a group of preachers to embrace political speech at the pulpit by telling them not to fear a federal law that prohibits candidate endorsements by tax-exempt churches.” It’s almost as frightening as a scary clown sighting.
Define political speech. Is it simply speaking to politics, moral issues and culture, as some assume? Or are we talking endorsements, the art of spin, and the rough and tumble world of maneuvering for power? Funny thing, I was at the Pastor’s Appreciation event last week and didn’t hear the governor talk about the latter. In fact, Gov. Bevin told approximately 125 pastors and church leaders in attendance, “It’s not about R’s or D’s, its about what’s right.” He didn’t tell them to endorse candidates, or get their people to vote for a certain party. He exhorted them to bring back some semblance of moral norms in a day when gender is no longer fixed and girls’ restrooms, locker rooms and team sports in our public schools are now open to biological males.
Even if a pastor endorses a candidate from the pulpit, should it be of any concern to a politician in Washington? It may be unwise to do so. It may be injudicious for spiritual shepherds to get mired the fray of petty power-grabs, but please don’t call it unconstitutional. If anything, the First Amendment protects the rights of pastors to preach unfettered messages without intrusion by the federal government. Churches can deal with the wisdom of whether a pastor should address politics and endorse candidates. It’s a pastor’s job to protect the pulpit from becoming a tool for a political party. The real concern lies when the government encroaches into church affairs and restricts messages from the pulpit.
At issue is the Johnson Amendment, a law passed in 1954 by Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, in order to muzzle his political opponents. The result is Section 501(c)3 which bars “religious, charitable, scientific,… or literary [organizations] from participating in, or intervening in “(including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” The measure wasn’t meant to bar churches or nonprofit advocacy organizations from commenting on candidates or speaking to social issues. That’s why Gov. Bevin called the law a “paper tiger.”
It’s unreasonable to expect ministers to piece together lives of shattered individuals who’ve made poor moral choices and expect those same ministers to be silent about the dangers of making such poor choices in the first place. Churches are depositories of moral capital and pastors are counselors to the hurting when one has overdrawn their integrity account. The homeless, drug-addicted, and despondent are refugees from a broken world and bad decisions that make it even tougher to live in. It behooves church leaders to restore moral guidance to individuals and delineate moral boundaries in society that prevent people from catapulting themselves into the abyss of dissolution. This extends to all facets of an issue including policies and politics.
When citizens adhere to a moral code prescribed by our Creator God the nation’s democratic institutions are more secure, society is more stable, and people have a chance to flourish. The Father of our nation thought so and reminded us in his Farewell Address that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Gov. Bevin said essentially the same at the gathering of pastors last week.
Maybe we’re dealing with such contentious social issues and brokenness evident in lives of so many because the pulpits have been silent too long. Intimidation and fear, some of it self-induced, has gotten us to this point. If ever there’s been a time for pastors to speak with clarity and boldness, it’s now. If we’ve ever needed more voices speaking to the need for moral reformation, it’s now. After all, politicians don’t have a monopoly on speaking to these things.
Richard Nelson is the executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center, a nonprofit public policy organization. He resides in Cadiz with his wife and children.