Monday, October 3, 2011

Pulpit Freedom Sunday

Yesterday was my first Sunday as the pastor at Poolesville Presbyterian Church, and it was a remarkably pleasant day.  Not perfect, of course, but no Sunday ever is.

But though I forgot to hike up the robe I haven't worn in years before ascending the pulpit, I managed to only stumble slightly after stepping on the hem, rather than doing the full failblog-worthy pastor-tumble into the side of the organ.    Though I mistakenly assumed there was only one tray of bread for communion at the second service, I managed not to dump the lower one all over myself, catching it at the last moment.  "This is my Body, Fumbled Unceremoniously on the Floor for Thee" is just not how that goes.  Though I forgot that eating a big slice of the lovely welcoming cake and then eating a big hunk of delicious watermelon might not be the best thing to put on a first-day-nervous stomach, I managed not to do the Linda Blair exorcist projectile vomiting thing during the scripture reading.  Which was for the best, given the target-rich environment in the cozy little sanctuary.   All in all, things worked as well as I could have hoped.  I could not have been made to feel more welcome.

And I preached on Philippians, because it was the lectionary text that seemed to best speak to a First Sunday in a pulpit.  I didn't manage to do the World Communion thing.  But though I was free to preach as I chose, I didn't participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday.

Pulpit Freedom Sunday was, in the event you hadn't heard of this effort, a movement on the part of some right-wing pastors to challenge the Internal Revenue Service restrictions on endorsing candidates from the pulpit.   According to current regulations, pastors are legally bound not to use their pulpits to actively support political candidates.  This is partially a separation of church and state thing, but mostly it has to do with the nonprofit status of churches.  As tax-exempt 501(c)3 organizations, congregations receive certain deductability of giving, exemption from property and sales taxes, and the like.  This is as opposed to political parties, which are 527 organizations.  They are exempt from corporate taxation, but must pay property and sales tax, and you can't deduct what you give to them, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. 

Because churches are (c)3 and not 527 organizations, pastors are told they can't use their pulpits to advance the cause of particular political candidates.  Can we preach on issues?  Sure.  That's never, ever, ever been an issue.  Does our engagement with and proclamation of the Gospel have ramifications for our lives as citizens?  Absosmurfly.  When I preach about loving the stranger and the alien, being good stewards of creation, and being wary of the siren songs of hatred and extremism, that has direct political implications.  It just does.

But once you start using a church/nonprofit organization to actively and explicitly support a political party...what's the difference between you and that party?  Things get mighty murky, mighty quick.  Which master do you serve?

For the big-parking-lot pastors who seem to be driving this initiative, this restriction is seen as a violation of their religious freedom.  Why can't I endorse from the pulpit!?  Don't you tell me what to do!  How dare the state restrict my beliefs!  I am the master of my megachurch domain!  I rule here!

Here, though, what I can't quite grasp is why those pastors don't see the slippery slope they're sliding down.  Pastor James Garlow, one of the more vocal proponents of this movement, seems utterly incensed at what he describes as "...government intrusion in the pulpit."   So in defiance of the intrusion of government into matters of faith, standing on his religious freedom and his rights under the separation of church and state in our republic, he wants to...put...politics...into...the pulpit.


Am I the only one who sees the incongruity here?  Or that in seeking "freedom," what is really being sought is the right to be loosed from the yoke of preaching and teaching the Gospel, and to dabble in the power that comes from being able to deliver voters?