Free to Differ

Screenshot 2017-05-09 08.55.41President Trump has promised to “destroy” the so-called Johnson Amendment, which has become shorthand for a provision in the tax code that applies to all 501(c)(3) organizations. Groups that enjoy that most-favored tax status must refrain from endorsing, opposing or financially supporting political candidates.

The law makes perfect sense to me.  Organizations that benefit from what is in effect a public subsidy should not be allowed to function as partisan organizations.

Proponents of repeal of the Johnson Amendment see it as suppressing “religious liberty.”  I don’t see it that way at all.  The law simply limits groups, including churches, from being both a tax-exempt ministry and a partisan political entity.  Nothing in the law bars me, as a Christian pastor, from speaking freely about matters of faith and public policy.  I can certainly praise or criticize those who hold public office.  What I can’t do under the law is endorse candidates for office – at least not in my capacity as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church.

In many ways, this fracas is much ado about nothing.  Only rarely has the IRS gone after churches for overt partisan political activity.  Despite what fear mongers say, the IRS is not poised to pounce on preachers.

Although I have occasionally been asked to endorse candidates for office, it has always been my policy not to do so.  I suppose that, as a private citizen, I could endorse someone, but, as any pastor will tell you, a pastor is never really “off duty.”  I have never endorsed –nor will I ever endorse – anyone from the pulpit.  On the other hand, my calling to preach the Word sometimes leads me to question or praise office holders and their policies.

My Dad, who was a pastor, declined to put a political sign in the yard of the manse.  When he lived in a home not owned by the church, however, he changed his mind.  I don’t put partisan bumper stickers on my car because I use it for official functions.  I don’t want a grieving family of a differing political persuasion to follow my car in a funeral procession, resentful of my politics.  On the other hand, because I own my own home, you might see the odd political sign in the front yard (or several of them.)

This week’s edition of Time magazine recalls the almost-forgotten role that some clergy played in the abortion debate before the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe versus Wade.  Writer Gillian Frank singles out the courageous acts taken by Charles Landreth, Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee, and Florida State University Professor Leo Sandon.  The first paragraph of her article reads:

“Today I want to speak to The Challenge of the Sexual Revolution, or to The Use of the Body in Regard to Abortion,” declared the Reverend Charles Landreth on, June 6, 1971. From the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, Fla., Landreth invited those present to imagine different situations that led to a “problem pregnancy.” Landreth prodded his congregants, asking them to consider what an unwanted pregnancy and lack of access to abortion could mean to an older married woman, a young woman who had been raped or a high-school girl “scared literally to death to tell her staunch Catholic parents and therefore very tempted to run to a quack . . . ”

I recommend the article.  I also give thanks to God for servants like Charlie Landreth and Leo Sandon, who truly understand what “religious liberty” means.

Rabbi to the Rescue

Screenshot 2015-07-11 14.41.56My Dad, a wise presbyter, counseled me shortly after I was ordained, “You don’t have to speak in every debate on the floor of presbytery. If you wait a little while, someone else will probably make your speech for you.”

I give Dad, now in the Church Triumphant, credit for my decision not to respond in print to Father Eric Dudley’s editorial in the Tallahassee Democrat regarding marriage equality.

Back in August I took Archbishop Thomas Wenski to task for his uncharitable diatribe against supporters of marriage equality. I figured my parishioners could do without seeing their pastor’s mug in the Democrat yet again. Surely, I figured, somebody would make my speech for me.

Well, somebody did. My friend Jack Romberg, rabbi at Temple Israel, produced his own guest editorial in response to Father Dudley’s. Not only did Jack point out that the Bible does not reflect a single, monolithic model of marriage, he also suggested that insisting that there is only one way to interpret the Bible is a form of religious hubris.

I agree.

Two elements of my brother Eric’s opinion piece bothered me most. First were his words about “loving” gay friends and family members. He wrote:

It is not that we dislike homosexual people; on the contrary, we have friends and family members who are gay and we love them, and treat them with the warmth and kindness with which we treat anyone we love. But we cannot support them in their desire to marry.

“Love” that is reduced to “warmth and kindness,” but does not demand justice is not “love” in the biblical sense. “Love” in the biblical sense calls us to acknowledge the full humanity and dignity of the other, not just to treat him or her with “warmth and kindness.”

Growing up in the South, I remember all too well those Christians who maintained, “Some of my best friends are Negroes and I love them.” That “love” did not prevent my white Christian friends from denying people of color their civil rights or from telling and laughing at racist jokes.

I’m often wary when my fellow Christians speak of “love.” “Love” can easily become Christian-speak for “condescension.”

I also take issue with Father Dudley’s assertion that marriage equality hastens our nation’s slide down the slippery slope toward secularism. For him, the Supreme Court’s ruling represents “ . . . yet another unraveling of the Christian fabric of our country, another step in the direction of secular Europe.”

I’m not sure what Father Dudley means by “secular.” In Henry VIII’s time “secularism” meant the disposition of one religious system by another. To gain support for his throne and in his fight against the Pope who refused to grant him a divorce, Henry “secularized” church property.  Some of the “secularized” property went into the royal treasury; some went to his supporters.

“Secular” is also a term used within Catholicism to distinguish the world from the church. I take it that for Father Dudley, “secular” means society’s descent into agnosticism or atheism.  Secularism in this sense goes hand in hand with the waning influence of churches — especially government-supported “established” churches.

We Reformed Christians aren’t too keen on the word “secular.”  It rubs against the grain of our theological tradition.

I agree with Marilynne Robinson that “secularism” has no real meaning in today’s world. The incarnate God, the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, is present and active in all of creation, including all of humanity:

. . . All I wish to suggest is that faith lives in the human world by the grace of God, because of the love and loyalty of God, and in the presence of God, which is free, indifferent to our anxieties, to our categories, and quite emphatically, I think, to our very negative judgments about the spiritual state of our neighbors . . .” (Christian Century, July 8, 2015, p. 25).

It doesn’t help to label marriage equality as evidence of creeping secularism. That’s just a another way of pointing out the speck in my neighbor’s eye while ignoring the log in my own eye.

I thank my colleague Father Dudley for his provocative editorial and my colleague Rabbi Romberg for his response. This is the kind of exchange that makes me proud to live under the United States Constitution.