Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Being Partisan in the Pulpit: Going the Extra Mile

The Johnson Amendment, which became law in the U.S. in 1954 and was named for Lyndon Johnson, then a U.S. Senator, “is a provision in the tax code that prohibits tax-exempt organizations from openly supporting political candidates. In the words of the tax code, ‘all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”[1] I submit that it is in a cleric’s interest to expand this prohibition to include advocating for (or opposing) particular public policies. This general principle would of course be subject to exceptions in which a proposed or enacted policy is strongly anathema to the religious principles of the given religious organization or religion.

Generally speaking, it is in the medium- and long-term interest of both clerics and their religious organizations to resist the temptation to preach along partisan lines. That such preaching is a temptation should signal the presence of a bad odor, and yet it is almost always overlooked or dismissed out of hand. Besides turning off members who are good fits religiously speaking but do not agree with the particular political ideology being preached, the stain of partisan ideology can make the cleric seem self-obsessed. In other words, that such preachments are convenient to the speakers themselves can easily be translated into self-idolatry in religious terms.

One cleric, not of one of the Abrahamic religions, in my hometown once told me that according to his religion, certain social structures are sacred. In particular, only those sociological/economic/political systems that are egalitarian and thus just in this way can be sacred. The use of this overtly religious term takes human artifacts to have divine status. By implication, the social, economic, or political ideology in play is also divine. I submit that such a position counts as self-idolatry—the worship of the human as itself being sacred, or divine. Put another way, if the societal systems we design are sacred, then the makers themselves must also be sacred—essentially little gods admiring their handiwork. I submit that when the cleric preaches on socio-economic and political policies or systems thereof as sacred, he is engaging in self-idolatry. Religion for him has become too comfortable, too easy. Absent is the wholly other, or absolutely different, quality of the divine, which is transcendent as well as immanent. Declaring a human artifact to be sacred eclipses the transcendent.

Unfortunately, the temptation to make the preachment as fitting as possible to the preacher’s own ideology can easily exploit good exceptions, where the public policy is anathema to a major religious teaching. Roman Catholicism’s doctrine of humanae vitae (i.e., on the sanctity of human life) arguably justifies preaching in opposition to abortion and capital punishment. To be sure, the doctrine’s salience relative to the Incarnation and the Resurrection can be subject to critique, such that the political opposition may actually be ideological in nature. In other words, the doctrine of the sanctity of human life—which does not imply that human beings are sacred!—could be used as a subterfuge allowing for the true, subterranean motive: political influence in line with a particular moral/political ideology.

Even if the allowance of good exceptions has a tendency of being exploited, it is indeed possible that public policies run contrary to significant religious beliefs, and such opposition is legitimate in the pulpit.  The task for the conscientious cleric writing a sermon is to be on guard—like the disciples presumably on the night Jesus is handed over to the Roman guard—for the slithering motions of self-idolatry under the subterfuge of pious religion.

[1] Randall Balmer, “The Peril of Being Partisan at the Pulpit,” Stars and Stripes, February 7, 2017.