Keep the ban on pulpit politics

As people of faith, we turn to our traditions for guidance and to bring the world around us closer to the highest ideals expressed by our religious traditions. Standing before a congregation to offer a sermon is an awesome responsibility that should not be taken lightly. It is different than any other kind of speech. Your congregation is looking to you for moral guidance and to deliver it requires incredible trust between clergy and a congregation. Bringing partisan politics into that equation is likely to cause division and by extension, violate that trust.

The 14 members of the Commission are not only calling on Congress to allow clergy to bring electoral politics into the very heart of the faith community itself – the pulpit. What’s more, they are attempting to present their conclusions as universally accepted by the broader American faith community, even though their conclusions were rejected by some on their own advisory panel including one of the signers of this op-ed. No one should take the report in question as representative of all Americans of faith, or as being true to our historic interpretation of the boundaries between religion and government. In fact, a recent Pew Research Center poll found that two-thirds of Americans oppose the kind of pulpit endorsements that the Commission calls for.

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For a faith leader, a mark of success is that members of the flock draw upon the moral guidance of their faith to help shape their decisions as family members, co-workers, community members and as voting Americans. But the bright line on tax-exempt status and politics prohibits candidate endorsements, and there are good reasons for this. To allow otherwise would be bad for democracy and horrible for the integrity of religion.

Lifting the ban would effectively allow taxable political donations to be “laundered” through religious institutions, which are tax-free and highly influential in members’ lives. It would potentially cast faith leaders as paid spokespeople and routine church communications such as sermons and bulletins into funded campaign promotions. Furthermore, applying the same logic would clear the way to lift existing restrictions on candidates electioneering in congregations.

The authors of the Commission report claim that the ban on pulpit endorsements enables the government “to evaluate the content of a sermon delivered by a member of the clergy," thus suggesting that the ban engenders undue interference by government in the faith community. In fact, the opposite can be easily argued. Faith-based institutions are not only tax-exempt but also exempt from other government rules, regulations, audits, and controls. If the faith sector becomes a tool for partisan political electioneering, government regulation compromising the autonomy of our houses of worship would surely ensue, such as extensive IRS and FEC regulations. By getting into the weeds of budgets and expenditures of houses of worship, the government would have vastly more opportunity to “evaluate the content” of religious institutions’ activities that so concerned the Commission. 

Speaking as faith leaders, we are further concerned by the temptation for those wishing to use the faith community to win elections -- such temptation is potentially so great that the faith community must oppose the lifting of the ban to prevent the resulting destructive dynamics that would distract the higher purposes of our institutions. Faith communities would find themselves further divided not only by principles, but by financial interests promising to contribute to the church in exchange for political endorsements. The need for faith communities to resist and resolve such interferences is our own task, not the government’s job, by definition because of the boundaries between church and state. We argue to those who care about the faith sector that it has far more to lose than to gain by such a change. If we allow faith leaders to preach support for a specific candidate or party, we will be chipping away at our nation’s very foundation.

And no one will benefit from that, least of all people of faith.

Gaddy is president of Interfaith Alliance. Schonfeld is executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly.