What Happens When a Bunch of Preachers Decide To Get Political?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 9 2012 7:02 PM

The Bully Pulpit

These preachers want to get political. You got a problem with that?

Pulpit Freedom Sunday pastor.
A pastor preaching during Pulpit Freedom Sunday

Courtesy Alliance Defend Fund/YouTube.

RIO RANCHO, N.M.—The Calvary Chapel of Rio Rancho sits off highway 528, just north of Albuquerque, a short drive that seems to hit every traffic light in the state. It’s Sunday, and the traffic’s worse than usual. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has filled the city and its suburbs—like Rio Rancho—with tourists. Nobody really minds. As we park and walk into the chapel, we can see the balloons lift off in the main field. The ushers are just especially thankful that we skipped the carnival food and inflated cartoon characters in favor of a sermon.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

We’re expecting something special. Today, Oct. 7, is the fifth annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday. At least 1,500 pastors will give sermons about politics. This is raw politics, premeditated violations of the IRS’s tax exemption guidelines. Their message: Come and get us. Go on. Sue us. See what happens.

Calvary Chapel’s pastor, Robert Hall, was one of the first guys into the pool. In 2008, he joined 30 other pastors and gave a political sermon. Nothing happened. (He’d given $700 to Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign, but was otherwise on the campaign sidelines.) In 2009, the number of pastors expanded, and Hall gave another sermon. Nothing. Every year he’d talk, and the IRS would ignore him. Finally, on “the Monday before Easter” this year, the IRS sent him notice it was “looking into it.”

Hall offers me the drink he usually gets after a sermon—a salted caramel mocha from the chapel’s café, served in a Tigger mug—and pronounces the threat to be ineffective. “I just laughed at the subtlety. That’s almost harassment. But apart from that they’ve never said a word to me.”

That’s the beauty and the problem of Pulpit Freedom Day. Churches, by long-standing tax law and constitutional tradition, are tax-exempt 501c3s. They don’t even have to apply for 501c3 status. They don’t have to file 990 tax returns. The Obama administration has not shaken down churches—literally none of them have been prosecuted for political speech since Obama took office, since the IRS dropped a case against a pastor in Rep. Michele Bachmann’s district.

But pastors argue that the 1954 “Johnson amendment” has had a silencing effect, as Lyndon Johnson intended when he changed the law governing tax-exempt organizations. The amendment threatened revocation of status for institutions that “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of—or in opposition to—any candidate for public office.” That didn’t stop religious leaders from barreling into politics. One year after the amendment passed, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a bus boycott in Montgomery. But today’s conservative pastors pine for a time when they could mobilize their congregations without any sort of end-runs or careful wording.

In their Oct. 7 sermons, the Pulpit Freedom pastors describe a culture that is at war with them and a government that makes war on them. So, in California, Jim Garlow gets into the weeds on fiscal policy and explains just how irresponsible the federal government is. “When somebody talks about a Balanced Budget Amendment that holds Congress not to spend more than they take in, that holds them to 18 percent of GDP, that holds them to not raising taxes without a supermajority, that is not some wild-eyed idea from economic theory,” he says. “That is spiritual principle that comes from the Bible, particularly from the book of Proverbs.” And how has the Johnson Amendment helped with that problem? “How’s that worked out for us in the last 58 years? How have our communities been doing, how has our nation been doing with pastors silenced in the pulpit?”

In Maryland, Harry Jackson devotes his sermon to “reasons why I cannot vote for Barack Obama.” Chief among them: gay marriage. “We can’t say, as many people in the black community are saying today: He had to do this, to raise money! No. He didn’t have to put that in the platform. … He didn’t have to make a show of putting the name of God back in the platform.” He simplifies the argument. “You’re against marriage? We’re against you.”

In other churches, congregations get a message that’s both more terrifying and more generic. “Our ruling elites hate the future,” says Douglas Wilson at a church in Idaho. “When they are not killing the citizens of the future, they are taxing the remainder into a staggering slavery. They hate it. They hate God and they hate the image of God. They hate the image of God and man, and that’s why they attack the most innocent among us.”

In Rio Rancho, I take a folding chair in the back of the chapel and sing along with some guitar-and-vocals devotionals. The service begins with a church elder affirming that America is “going downhill, and going downhill, fast,” before reading from Chronicles 7:11, Verse 14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Hall takes the pulpit only briefly to tell us that his big sermon will come next week. We’ll have to wait to hear who he’s voting for. In the meantime, we’ll hear from “my lawyer,” Joe Infranco. It’s a star turn—Infranco is with the Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly the Alliance Defense Fund), and he’s joined Hall on a tour of New Mexico churches, talking up pulpit freedom. Instead of endorsing a candidate, he’ll describe how far a nation can fall—how much harm can be done to Christians—if the churches don’t engage in political debate. He bemoans the “Starbucks conversation,” in which Christians are uncomfortable saying what they think to strangers.

“What happens when same-sex marriage comes is that if you’re a traditional Christian, it becomes the wrong answer,” he says. “We’re in a culture that prizes relativism. You want to be tolerant. It’s the highest goal in the culture. But tolerance is not virtuous. Tolerating evil is not a great thing.”

Infranco has examples. California may pass a law that bans ex-gay therapy, even as sex-change therapy is encouraged and covered by health insurance. A photographer in New Mexico is fighting off a lawsuit because she chose not to document a gay wedding. Eke Green, a Swedish pastor, is convicted of a hate crime for calling homosexuality an “evil force” and “diabolical power.” (These are Green’s words, not Infranco’s.) It’s happening because Christians don’t fight back.

Infranco describes what happens when he debates, and a student says that the Alliance is trying to “force your morality” on people. “It gets thunderous applause, as if the words came down from Mount Sinai,” he says. “I’ll just say things like: Let me explore what you’re saying. If there’s no absolute truth and no absolute right or wrong, I suppose you don’t criticize Nazi Germany.” The point isn’t to compare the Reich to Obama’s America. The point is that the argument is so easy, and so winnable, if Christians buck the IRS and get into the game.

After the sermon, a small group of parishioners stay and talk with Infranco.

“I just feel like we’re in the minority now,” says one of them, a middle-aged transplant from New York.

“The real discrimination in the culture is absolutely against a Christian who believes in the authority of the Bible,” says Infranco. “You go to California and say ‘I’ve got a same-sex partner.’ You’ll be welcomed in politics. You can be president of a university. You go out and say, I supported Proposition 8, and your restaurant will be boycotted. You’ll be fired from the university.”

“We better start jumpin’ up and down a little more,” says the parishioner.

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