Presbyterians and Politics Part Deux



Back in the 2000s, during the presidency of George W. Bush, I saw a bumper sticker that said, “I never thought I would miss Nixon.” A few weeks ago I saw one that said, “I never thought I would miss Bush.” Given the trajectory of events, I can a envision future where we will see bumper stickers that say, “I never thought I would miss Trump.”

I hope and pray that day never come, but if it does, I would hope that I would not remain silent.

In a previous post I recounted my experience in politics, and my hesitancy to endorse specific candidates for public office. In spite of that, I said I was opposed to the recent proposed amendment to our constitution (in Presbyterianese, it is 06-16) that would prohibit ministers and other official representative of the PC(USA) from publicly doing that. 06-16 reads:

“No congregation, session, presbytery, synod, or national office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), nor any individual acting on behalf of or in an official capacity for the above institutions, shall publicly endorse or oppose, or otherwise encourage or discourage others to vote for or against an individual running for public office.”

Presbyteries will soon begin voting on whether this will become a part of our Book of Order.

I oppose this for a variety of reasons.


# # #

Power of the Pulpit

In the Presbyterian Book of Order, our constitution, ministers share their work and authority with others, most notably our boards of elders, with one major exception–certain aspects of the worship service, including the preparation and preaching of the sermon.

The pulpit is the one place where a pastor has ultimate authority. In all other ways we share power with the session, but in the pulpit we are subject only to the Word of God. At no point is any restriction put on a pastor when they preach–except in this amendment. Only here is the preacher told what they can and cannot say.

In the Presbyterian Church we give a lot of leeway to pastors in pulpits. Historically we are loathe to police what they say, or do not say.  A Presbyterian pastor can talk about the nature of Jesus, the Trinity, other theological issues, and not fear they will be punished. A Presbyterian pastor may support or oppose same-sex marriage without fear of negative repercussions from the denomination. We can talk about abortion (pro or con), immigration, poverty and homelessness, or hunger, and we do not worry that someone above is making sure we are toeing the denominational line.

Granted the pulpit is not the place for a pastor to force their opinions on others. My rule of thumb is that I have to be able to defend what I say using the scriptures. For example I talk about social issues, but in broad terms. I will talk about homelessness, but not necessarily in support of a specific policy concerning the homeless. The Bible clearly talks about taking care of the needy. It is notoriously short on specifics, and there are places where good Christians can disagree.

I have said previously that at no point in my ministry have I felt called to jump into partisan politics from the pulpit. Members of my congregation have run for office, and I never supported or opposed them from the pulpit. I never publicly supported them with letters to the editor or endorsements, no matter how much I privately supported them. Nor have I publicly opposed candidates, no matter how I felt about them privately.

But if an avowed Klansman, or Neo-Nazi were to make a run for office, and if it looked like they had a chance of winning, I hope I have the courage to speak up. I respect my denomination. I love my denomination. But I refused to be silenced by them if there is a large principle at stake. No session can dictate what I say in the pulpit. Nor can they prohibit me from speaking. That my denomination would, saddens me.


# # #

Not an Establishment of Religion

In the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, they were clear they did not support an established church in the new United States of America. They wrote, “we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable: we do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others.” We have affirmed that in thought, word and deed since those words were written.

But 06-16 is not about an established church. I agree with every word from that first General Assembly, but I do not see that affects the pastor in the pulpit. If I endorse or oppose a candidate that in no way means I am calling for an established Church. It in no way means that I believe that church has a special place in choosing or rejecting candidates. If I were to endorse a candidate, I have zero expectation that any governmental body, local, state or federal, will say, “The Church has spoken! We declare this candidate the winner!”  (As a matter of fact, I hardly expect my own congregation to say, “Our pastor has spoken! Let’s go vote his person into/out of office!”) My voice would merely be one in the many.

An established church is one that is recognized by the government, and receives special treatment because of their relationship. Endorsing or opposing candidates assumes no special treatment by the government. As a matter of fact, were a pastor to do so today, they should expect an unpleasant call from the IRS. Currently a church can lose its tax-exempt status if they publicly support or oppose candidates.

# # #

Johnson Amendment

There is the argument that speaking in favor or against candidates is a violation of the Johnson Amendment, and would cause churches to lose their tax-exempt status. If a denomination supported pastors who spoke out publicly, it is possible the entire denomination would lose its status. (The Johnson Amendment was enacted by then Senator Lyndon Johnson, and states that any non-profit that are exempt from taxation are “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office,” according to the IRS website.) They may not donate money to candidates nor may they support or oppose them publicly.

I support the Johnson Amendment, especially the part that prohibits campaign donations to candidates or parties. Were the Johnson Amendment repealed, I can hardly imagine how much of a game changer that could be. Churches would become funnels for tax exempt political donations. We have enough problems with campaign financing. We don’t need to add others.

Were I ever to violate the amendment, I would expect to be treated as any other pastor would. As long as the tax code prohibits it I would expect to pay the full penalty for violating that part of the code.  (Our current president has promised to do away with the Johnson Amendment, however it can only be repealed by an act of congress.)

I have no problem with having an extremely high cost for endorsing or opposing candidates, although of the 2000 or so clergy who have publicly violated the Johnson Amendment on “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” only one has been audited, and he was never punished.

An even higher cost is the possible loss of trust by a pastor’s congregation. That cannot be taken lightly. To jump willy-nilly into the political fray is a very bad idea. I hope and pray I never have to.

But if, God forbid, the time comes when I feel I must, I hope to do so wisely, and without fear of my denomination.


# # #

Great Ends  and Politics

The fifth Great End of the Church is, “The promotion of social righteousness.” That can mean a host of things, from speaking out against social ills to working actively to make positive changes in our world. Because the actual work of politicians often means compromise, backroom deals, and partisan positioning out of a concern for party power and not social righteousness, it is a good idea for pastors to keep that part out of the pulpit. Because good people of faith can end up on opposing sides of issues and partisan candidates, it is a good idea not to toss a political hand-grenade from the pulpit.

But these are dangerous times. We have seen children ripped from the arms of their parents. We have seen the President of the United States say that some people who marched with Neo-Nazis were “good people.” We have seen a record number of avowed racists run for public office. Political discourse, which has never really been civil, has moved off the charts with its incivility. I hope and pray we start to move in a different direction. I hope and pray that people of faith can oppose racism of every form, and that we can commit ourselves to taking care of the least of these. I hope and pray that these troubled times are a blip on our social radar, and not a portent of worse things to come.

But if they are not, I hope to be ready. And I hope the Presbyterian Church (USA) will support me, and not oppose me.

About tmrichmond3

I am the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Medford, Oregon. I believe that faith should be able to sustain us, not oppress us.
This entry was posted in ministry, Musings, Preaching, Presbyterian, Presbyterians, religion and politics, spirituality and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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