Once a year around this time, hundreds of criminals send videos of themselves breaking the law to the IRS. The perpetrators – church leaders from all over the United States – are simply celebrating a lesser-known religious holiday, “Pulpit Freedom Sunday”. By giving sermons that explicitly support a presidential candidate, these preachers are protesting the 1954 Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches and nonprofits from openly endorsing a political figure running for office. When I first learned of this national movement, my atheist instincts rendered me less than sympathetic. In a country where almost 80% of adults identify as Christian, I am often skeptical when churches claim to be persecuted by the majority. However, upon further reflection, I’ve come to agree with the leaders of Pulpit Freedom Sunday. The Johnson Amendment is infeasible to uphold, a violation of free speech, and unexcused by the church’s tax exempt status. For these reasons, I urge atheists, agnostics, and theists to stand united in protest against the law.
Though most preachers refrain from overtly endorsing a presidential candidate, many are unabashedly partisan in their sermons. Issues like abortion, gay marriage, and universal healthcare are popular topics on the pulpit. Though I may disagree with some of their messages, I do not fault religious leaders for addressing these matters; we cannot expect churches to close their windows to the world and preach purely theoretical perspectives. It naturally follows that certain candidates are more in line with the social views of a given preacher. Under the Johnson Amendment, a minister can say, “It would be a sin to vote for a candidate that supports gay marriage,” so long as he or she stops short of mentioning the candidate by name. After hearing numerous examples of preachers taking advantage of this fine line, I am forced to conclude that the law has lost its spirit. Even if it was feasible to monitor every sermon and screen for political content, it would be impossible to draw reasonable boundaries between politics and religion.
Regardless of the amendment’s failure in practice, the main argument of its critics is founded on principle. They contend that preventing preachers from endorsing political candidates is an infraction not only of church-state separation, but also of the first amendment. Opponents of this view might argue that the church has such a powerful influence on its attendees that a sermon supporting a political candidate is essentially coercion. However, even if you believe that people are unable to choose their religion (I would disagree), you have to concede that people are able to choose their congregation. If a certain preacher dedicates every sermon to expounding on the atrocities of your favorite political contender, you are free to leave at any time. Just as one is welcome, though perhaps socially discouraged, to discuss politics at a dinner party, one should be free to discuss politics at a voluntary religious gathering.
The second more convincing argument in favor of the Johnson Amendment is that churches are special in the eyes of the law. Because religious organizations are afforded tax exemption, they are essentially receiving government funding, and thus should be subject to certain restrictions determined by federal tax law. While I agree with this line of reasoning, I see this as justification for removing the tax exempt status of churches, not limiting their right to free speech. If a congregation is truly functioning as a nonprofit organization with humanitarian goals, it could qualify for tax exemption in the same way that charities can. Otherwise, the tax dollars of atheists like me are going towards putting a new wing on a megachurch. Unless churches are actively contributing to the well-being of everyone, they should not benefit from everyone, nor be excluded from the rights that everyone is afforded.
While Pulpit Freedom Sunday may seem like an odd holiday for an atheist to celebrate, I stood in solidarity this past weekend with over 1,000 pastors across the country. Though many of them do not share my social views or my pick for the presidential election, I recognize that there are issues at stake here that run deeper than partisan politics. In this day and age, religion and politics are inextricably linked. The Johnson Amendment’s failed attempt to unweave them has only put the first amendment in jeopardy.
PHOTO CREDITS: Flickr.com, Religionnews.com