Pulpit Freedom Sunday was a big mistake.
Last Sunday, Sept. 28, dozens of conservative Christian churches challenged tax rules that prohibit places of worship from endorsing candidates or engaging in activity that is biased for or against candidates. The ministers involved even told the Internal Revenue Service in advance that they planned to break the rule.
The Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based legal organization that says the tax code violates the First Amendment rights of ministers, promoted the event, and most participants were pro-life pastors who encouraged people to vote for John McCain and Sarah Palin. But this isn’t a free speech issue, and churches don’t belong in presidential races.
Churches, like other nonprofit groups, make a deal with the government. They get tax-exempt status in exchange for not injecting themselves into political races. Now the Pulpit Freedom Sunday churches want to renege on that deal and campaign for the Republican Party ticket even as they retain their tax-exempt status. But they can’t have it both ways.
If they want to back a candidate, they should have to pay taxes. And we could all use the money. Think of the billions of dollars that could flow into our ailing governmental coffers if all the cathedrals, mosques, synagogues and the wealthy megachurches with thousands of members had to fork over taxes. But the rebellious churches don’t want to hand over their share of the taxes. They just want to intrude even further into our political process.
Already the religious right, with the help of the Bush administration, has foisted its values onto crucial policies affecting the health, education and rights of women and children, not only in this country but all over the world. They have spent millions promoting abstinence-only education, and they have managed to stifle mention of abortion in dozens of health programs around the world.
Meanwhile, HIV/AIDS is still spreading through Africa and Asia, and it is sharply increasing among blacks and Latinos in the United States. The last thing we need is more religion in our politics. Places of worship should not be campaign offices. Instead, they should be places where people can get away from grimy political combat and find solace and wisdom in the ancient spiritual traditions.
The Founding Fathers wanted America to be a place of religious freedom. That is why they insisted there would be no law respecting the establishment of religion. Thomas Jefferson and many of the other Founding Fathers were trying to be men of reason. Many were deists who did not believe that God is involved in the day-to-day running of the universe. They believed God gave human beings the capacity to run their own affairs without calling on him for everything or using him to justify anything. Many of them took precautions to keep their own religious beliefs out of the public eye because they did not want to have undue influence on decisions and practices people should have been able to make for themselves. If only we could command more of that kind of respect nowadays.