Editor’s Note: During this week where Americans go to the polls for midterm elections, Canon and Culture is running a counterpoint series about the church and political activity. Today is the first in a three-part series.
Ask any pastor you know and he will tell you that it is forbidden for a pastor to support or oppose political candidates or leaders from the pulpit. This idea seems to be accepted almost as firmly as some Gospel truths. But is it justifiably true legally and theologically? Should the IRS really determine the content of a pastor’s remarks? Should tax exemption pivot on the pastor’s prose? Most pastors have not thought through this issue at any level and merely accept this censorship as “conventional wisdom.”
There are good reasons, however, why a pastor should fearlessly, freely, and from the pulpit, support or oppose political candidates.
1. Scripture warrants addressing political leaders and how they align with God’s word
The Bible evidences many examples in which spiritual leaders address political leaders both positively and negatively. This occurs negatively when a leader’s efforts conflict with God’s word or commands. In the same vein leaders are praised when their behavior aligns with God’s word.
One of the earliest examples occurs when Moses confronted Pharaoh (Exodus 5-12). God specifically tasked Moses to confront Pharaoh because he was enslaving and oppressing the Israelites. Moses didn’t respond by explaining to God that a spiritual leader should not address politics and political leaders. No, Moses obeyed and confronted Pharaoh.
In another example, Nathan confronted King David after he committed adultery and murder (2 Sam. 12). Nathan didn’t respond by telling God that politics is off limits or that political leaders shouldn’t be confronted with God’s truth.
In 1 Kings 17, Elijah confronted King Ahab with God’s judgment of draught because of Ahab’s sinful behavior. In 1 Kings 22, King Ahab summoned Micaiah and ordered him to prophesy victory for Ahab. Micaiah vowed only to speak what the Lord told him and then proceeded to confront Ahab with God’s decree that he shouldn’t go into battle, and if he did he would die. And he did.
Additionally, the Psalms, which are, among other things, worship songs, frequently address political leaders, including those outside the covenant community of Israel. Psalm 2 calls political leaders to “kiss the Son” and follow His ways. Psalm 83 calls out several political leaders of nations who have wronged God’s people, and petitions that God destroy them. Psalm 58 specifically addresses and confronts “rulers” who “speak unjustly” (Ps. 58:1). Psalm 94 notes wicked leaders who “frame injustice by statute.” It would be odd to sing about these things poetically in worship songs, but be off limits in the pastor’s prose proclaimed from the pulpit. A pastor can sing it, but not say it? Tax policy should turn on such things?
God spoke through numerous prophets, the spiritual leaders of their day, to political leaders who were violating God’s dictates. And lest you think that in the Old Testament the spiritual leaders of the day only confronted the kings of Israel or Judah, remember how Daniel confronted Nebuchadnezzar over his pride and told him that he would be driven away from his kingship like an animal until he acknowledged “that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Dan. 4:25). And remember how Jonah confronted Nineveh, including its leaders because of its sin (Jonah 3:1-9).
And we cannot simply write off the Old Testament examples as inapplicable under a misunderstanding that religion and the state were one and the same back then. The fact is that the Old Testament contained a version of the “separation between church and state.” Priests, with a few exceptions, came from the tribe of Levi, and kings came from other tribes, primarily the tribe of Judah. Kings who tried to exercise priestly roles were punished by God (See Saul in 1 Samuel 13 and Uzziah in 2 Chronicles 26). Moses was not Aaron; there was an institutional separation – but not an ethical one – between the priest and polis.
The New Testament continues this biblical practice of religious leaders addressing political leaders. John the Baptist was imprisoned and ultimately beheaded because he had confronted Herod when he had deviated from God’s design for marriage (Matt. 14:3-4). Jesus called Herod Antipas, another leader, a fox and refused to leave when Herod wanted to kill him (Luke 13:31-32). And, when on trial, Jesus reminded Pontius Pilate that he would have no authority — that’s legal and political authority – unless it has been granted to him from above (John 19).
There are also Scriptural instances in which political leaders are praised or urged by God’s people to do the right thing when facing a moral choice. For example, Nehemiah petitioned Artaxerxes to allow the return of the Jewish exiles to Jerusalem (Neh. 2:1-8). When Artaxerxes does the right thing, he is praised by the religious leaders. Esther intervened with King Xerxes to prevent a planned slaughter of the Jewish people (Esther 5, 7, & 8). When President Clinton signed the DOMA and RFRA bills, should not the religious leaders be free to commend (or condemn) his action in doing so?
The Bible also instructs the followers of Jesus in ways that imply addressing civil magistrates in the context of the corporate religious-congregational gathering. For example, God commands believers to “honor the emperor” (1 Pet. 2:17). How are believers to honor the emperor if we do not know how (or whether) the “emperor” aligns with Scripture? Pastors can help to bridge the gap between when those words were written and today by being willing to speak about what it looks like for today’s Christians to “honor the emperor.”
Scripture also commands that “prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving” be made for “kings and all those in authority, that we may lead peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:1-2). If believers can pray for Bill Clinton’s marriage to be saved after his adultery was revealed, why can’t pastors address that same issue from the pulpit in order to direct the believers to obey that scriptural command? To maintain fidelity with this command, why can’t pastors express thankfulness that a President’s actions and policies respect life, marriage, or religious freedom? It would be odd to have tax exemption arbitrarily pivot on whether an issue is “prayed for” by the flock or “preached upon” by the shepherd.
2. The idea that pastors should not support or oppose candidates is a recent partisan invention, not a constitutional principle
The idea that pastors should remain silent when it comes to supporting or opposing political leaders is something that is new. This is true even if we only consider American history. The first 166 years of America, from the time of the ratification of the Constitution, until 1954, pastors could, and indeed did, speak freely from their pulpits both supporting and opposing political candidates for office. Pastors were not timid in doing so.
The pulpits of New England thundered with revolutionary fervor that was grounded in a Biblical resistance to tyranny. Jonathan Mayhew, a colonial pastor was not shy in preaching against tyranny. In the preface to a sermon he gave in 1750, he addressed the very issue of this dialogue:
It is hoped that but few will think the subject of it an improper one to be discoursed on in the pulpit – [that it is] a nation that this is preaching politics instead of Christ. However, to remove all prejudices of this sort, I beg it may be remembered that “all Scripture is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” [2 Timothy 3:16]. When, then, should not those parts of Scripture which relate to civil government be examined and explained from the desk [pulpit], as well as others? Obedience to the civil magistrate is a Christian duty; and if so, why should not the nature, grounds, and extent of it be considered in a Christian assembly? Besides, if it be said that it is out of character for a Christian minister to meddle with such a subject, this censure will at last fall upon the Holy Apostles. They write upon it in their epistles to the Christian churches; and surely it cannot be deemed either criminal or impertinent to attempt an explanation of their doctrine.
Mayhew’s view was not his own but was shared by many other pastors throughout American history. In a sermon in 1800, William Linn opposed Thomas Jefferson’s candidacy for President. Linn said: “I will venture it as my serious opinion, that rather than be instrumental in the election of Mr. Jefferson, it would be more acceptable to God and beneficial to the interests of your country, to throw away your vote. . . . Let me further repeat, [in this address] the single thing intended, is to show that . . . he ought not to be honored and entrusted with the Presidency of the United States of America.”
In 1864, Pastor William Stearns endorsed Abraham Lincoln for President, saying: “There is a power in this land hardly second to that of an immense army. It is the wisdom and honesty, and the reputation of it inspiring confidence at home and abroad, which belong to the character of Abraham Lincoln.”
Other pastors likewise throughout American history spoke from the pulpit for or against candidates for office. That all changed, though, in 1954 with the passage of the Johnson Amendment. In 1954, Lyndon Johnson was running for reelection to the United States Senate. In the midst of a campaign he was supposed to easily win, he found himself opposed by two secular non-profit organizations. One was called Facts Forum and one was called the Committee for Constitutional Government. These two organizations were dedicated to opposing communism and they believed that Johnson’s stance against communism was too lenient. The organizations began distributing thousands of pieces of literature opposing Johnson’s reelection bid.
Johnson tried to find ways to silence these organizations. He even inquired of the IRS as to whether the organizations were violating tax law by opposing his candidacy but was told that they were not. With his reelection chances in jeopardy, Johnson came up with a cunning idea to change the law to prohibit non-profits from supporting or opposing candidates for office.
On July 2, 1954, Johnson appeared on the U.S. Senate floor and offered an amendment to a massive bill that modernized and overhauled the tax code. The legislative history shows that no debate occurred on the amendment and it passed with a voice vote. It went on to become part of the law that President Eisenhower later signed into law on August 16, 1954.
One scholar who studied the history of the Johnson Amendment concluded:
The ban on electioneering is not rooted in constitutional provisions for separation of church and state. It actually goes back to 1954 when Congress was revising the tax code, anti-communism was in full bloom, and elections were taking place in Texas. In this highly-charged political environment, Lyndon Johnson introduced an amendment banning section 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations from participating in any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office. His amendment was directed at anti-communist groups such as Facts Forum and the Committee for Constitutional Government which stood between him and his goals of crippling McCarthyism, thwarting Allan Shivers’ efforts to control the Democratic party in Texas, and defeating Dudley Dougherty. Johnson was not trying to address any constitutional issue related to separation of church and state; and he did not offer the amendment because of anything that churches had done. Churches were not banned from endorsing candidates because they are religious organizations; they were banned because they have the same tax-exempt status as facts Forum and the Committee for Constitutional Government, the right-wing organizations that Johnson was really after. … The ban on electioneering has nothing to do with the First Amendment or Jeffersonian principles of separation of church and state.
This history discloses that a muted pulpit did not arise from any enlightened or noble constitutional principle, but rather became an unintended casualty from a partisan end run that was wholly unconcerned with religious expression—pure politics that were not pure at all. The current ban and censorship on pastors supporting or opposing candidates flows from a rank incumbent-protection measure passed by a powerful Senator bent on keeping his seat in the halls of power. Perhaps, as Jesus said of Herod Antipas, Senator Johnson too was a fox.
3. Addressing public policies and those who make them contributes diversity in seeking the common good
As believers, we are commanded to “do justice” (Micah 6:8). And, God calls His people, especially when living “outside the religious bubble” to “seek the welfare (shalom) of the city” (Jer. 29). The God of Scripture loves justice and hates when injustice pervades a society. (See Is. 61:8; Amos 5:23-24; Prov. 14:34; Prov. 29:2). Confronting evil and exalting righteousness by being salt and light, seeking God’s kingdom and His righteousness (justice), are hallmarks and evidences of fidelity to the Christian faith. Christians as saved FROM something FOR something (Eph. 2:10; Titus 2:14). How can a shepherd equip the sheep to reflect these ethical mandates without addressing them in his calling as a vocational preacher?
Is a religious perspective irrelevant to the common good? Does religious motivation undermine or motivate the common good? Recall that Christian leaders and their words—many of them uttered from the pulpit—undergirded and sustained the abolition movements in the UK and the U S, as well as the subsequent the civil rights movement. The IRS would have silenced Wilberforce and the Clapham sect as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. and his allies. Silencing such giants of justice would impoverish the public square and curtail the expansion of public justice.
Finally, note that in the US, it is the people—not the politicians—in whom political power resides. Many of those people practice religion publicly, that is, they try to live according to religious precepts. Far from being irrelevant, those religious precepts enrich the public discourse. Proclaiming how religion affects public life is part and parcel of informing a citizen on how to live faithfully. But, to do so, they must learn how their faith applies outside the church doors, including how it applies to matters of culture and yes, public policy.
And remember that the politicians these citizens elect make and enforce policies and laws that impact people and our society as a whole. For too long, politicians have gotten a free pass from moral and Biblical scrutiny by the church and its pastors. Silencing the pulpit from addressing such matters withholds a crucial mechanism for developing and enriching the political checks and balances held by the citizenry which are integral to a well-functioning constitutional republic. As Jefferson wrote, governments are instituted among men to secure—not confer—inalienable rights, rights bestowed by the Creator. The IRS rule treats voters more as subjects than as citizens. Politics in the pulpit is neither profane, nor provocative; rather, it is a prudent practice for promoting public justice.
The view expressed in this commentary belongs solely to the author and is not necessarily the view of the ERLC.