16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ (Matthew 22:16-21)
Politics From The Pulpit?!?
The Separation of Church and State
I have been meditating about writing about this matter for almost a year, and now, thanks to some recent conversations I have had with several folks both here at Robeson and among fellow clergy elsewhere, I thought it a good time to address various issues regarding preaching that touches on the area of politics.
Question 1 – Doesn’t Separation of Church and State mean that no one is allowed to speak “politically” from the pulpit?
Please take some time and read the following – it is the 1st Amendment of our U.S. Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
As you may have noticed there is nothing in this text that forbids any religious person from speaking about political matters. In fact it actually opens up all sorts of free speech. As it says though, it does prevent the Congress from establishing any one religion as the religion of the United States. This is why it is a massive misnomer to claim America as a “Christian Nation” because it simply cannot be defined by religion as per the Constitution. You are welcome to freely debate if Christians make up the majority of the United States, but nevertheless Christianity is not THE religion of the United States – in the same way that English, while it may be our primary language, is not the Established language of the United States (feel free to look this up!)
By the way, the phrase separation of church and state actually comes from President Thomas Jefferson who on January 1, 1802, wrote a letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, offering clarification about the meaning of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Jefferson described the Establishment Clause of First Amendment by writing, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”
Question 2 – But isn’t there some amendment that forbids non-profit organizations like churches from talking politics?
Yes, sort of. What you may be thinking of is the Johnson Amendment; which is a provision in the U.S. tax code, since 1954, that prohibits all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. The amendment is named after Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, who introduced a preliminary draft of the law in July 1954.
You may note that the issue here deals with endorsing of opposing political candidates, and this is why many churches (and their pastors) will not tell their people who they should vote for, but instead seek to offer a balanced and informative perspective from all sides during election season.
Unfortunately because this is a Tax Code issue, and the IRS has done very little to enforce it, there are plenty of pastors, churches, and especially TV ministry personalities who shameless tell folks who they must vote for on a regular basis whenever an election is near.
I personally consider this very unprofessional and can state that I have never used the pulpit as a platform to demand votes for any politician or their party. I wholly support and respect the Johnson Amendment and that is also why you will never see a political party (or candidates) sign on the parsonage lawn, nor would I desire any such signage as such to be on the church property.
Question 3 – But isn’t it wrong or at the very least a possible abuse of the pastoral office to talk politics from the pulpit?
That is a fantastic, well thought out, and complicated question, and I can’t wait to address it more thoroughly in March’s Digest. I Promise!
Your brother in Christ,