I read the Pew Forum Question & Answer: Pastors to Protest IRS Rules on Political Advocacy (Friday, September 19, 2008), but as I read commentary from explicitly religious voices, I realized that a debate about tax-exempt status really would not be the best discussion for us to be having and that what I was really interested in (and what I thought would be more interesting to the group, as well as a discussion we were all better equipped to have) was a discussion about what kind of political speech we think is appropriate for a pastor to make from the pulpit.
I didn't actually distribute any handouts (though I probably should have passed out the Pew Forum one for a take-home fyi) but I paraphrased (though not as well as I should have -- I'm so bad at preparing sufficiently for the nights I lead group) from the below excerpts as starting points for our discussion.
Excerpt from Apples, oranges in political pulpits Posted by tmatt on GetReligion.org (Thursday, September 25, 2008):
I am not sure that anyone knows precisely what is going to happen this coming Sunday.***
I say that, after reading the following report in the Los Angeles Times. Here’s the start of Duke Helfand’s report, which ran with the double-deck headline, “Pastors plan to defy IRS ban on political speech — Ministers will intentionally violate ban on campaigning by nonprofits in hopes of generating a test case.”Setting the stage for a collision of religion and politics, Christian ministers from California and 21 other states will use their pulpits Sunday to deliver political sermons or endorse presidential candidates — defying a federal ban on campaigning by nonprofit groups.Now notice, right up front, that the lede contains an apple and an orange. What does it mean to say that clergy are going to “deliver political sermons or endorse presidential candidates.” What is a “political sermon” and what, precisely, makes a “political sermon” a violation of U.S. law?
The pastors’ advocacy could violate the Internal Revenue Service’s rules against political speech with the purpose of triggering IRS investigations. That would allow their patron, the conservative legal group Alliance Defense Fund, to challenge the IRS’ rules, a risky strategy that one defense fund attorney acknowledges could cost the churches their tax-exempt status. Congress made it illegal in 1954 for tax-exempt groups to publicly support or oppose political candidates.
There are all kinds of legal layers here. Let me sketch out a few.(1) Take, for example, a priest who follows guidelines and preaches a sermon against abortion and related life issues on “Respect Life Sunday,” the first Sunday in October.So what are these “Pulpit Initiative” preachers going to do? All of the above? Will they openly endorse a candidate or pronounce an anathema on one?
(2) But wait. This year, there will almost certainly be Catholic priests who stress that there are a wide array of life issues, other than abortion, that must be taken into account in the voting booth. This can be interpreted as offering theological cover for most Democrats, including the candidate for the White House.
(3) Then there are priests who will read Vatican statements that abortion is the issue that towers over others, a unique form of absolute evil. Some may even say that it is wrong to vote for candidates who actively support an unfettered right to abortion. Will these be political sermons? Wink-and-nod endorsements?
(4) It is also common for sermons to be delivered, in a wide variety of ethnic churches, that include statements by the pastor that say something like this: “This candidate is one of us.” Then everyone stands and cheers, while the pastor and the candidate embrace. Is that an endorsement?
(5) What about pastors who strictly stick to a social, moral or religious issue in a sermon — yet also say that it is sinful to vote for any candidate, in either party, who violates what the pastor believes is the biblical stand on that issue? These sermons can focus on the war in Iraq, abortion, universal health care, gay rights, etc. Are these “political sermons”? Do they, for all practical purposes, serve as endorsements for some candidates over others?
(6) Finally, what if the pastors say, “Now, brothers and sisters, I cannot tell you who to vote for! But I am going to vote for (fill in blank here), a long, longtime friend of this church.” Is that a personal or corporate endorsement?
Excerpt from Church, meet State; State, Church Posted on September 29, 2008 by Becca Clark:
The sermon comes at a point of the service where we hear and respond to the Word of God in our lives. What the living Word might say to us is a mysterious and powerful thing. It is a time to open one another to the mystery of God, to all that is Holy, to fragile and infinite Truth. To bring into that moment a person’s name, a poltical party, an advertisement like so many others we see all over the TV and hear on the radio and read in print, to take that sacred moment and make it no different than a thirty second spot between an ad for McDonalds and the beginning of “The Office,” that’s profane. That’s insulting. That’s wounding to one’s congregation and to the cultivation of the awareness of the Spirit.***
It breaks the moment of worship, shifting focus away from God and the Good News, to a lesser, temporal, finite thing.
Pastor Judy talked about preaching, for example, on how if we take Matthew seriously then we're mandated to clothe the naked, heal the sick, etc. -- though we can disagree about how we should get there.
She also raised the distinction of politics v. PARTISAN politics, which I thought was a very useful one. (I also later raised the distinction, riffing off of various things Judy had said, of politics vs. policy. because Judy had talked a lot about how "politics" essentially means how we are in community with each other -- we tend to scale up from "individual" to "nation" level, but there are a lot of levels in between.)
Mike talked about how his faith provides him with a foundation, but when making decisions on political issues, he uses secular tools because those seem more appropriate and useful -- the Bible may provide you with guiding principles, but it's not going to tell you whether one policy leads a more equitable distribution of resources or whatever.
Judy suggested the analogy of your faith being like scientific theorems and the policy decisions as like the scientific applications. Meredith (or was it Mike?) suggested faith was more like a heuristic.
Judy reminded us of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral -- Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience -- and suggested that it might be a useful way to ground/frame our thinking about this.
Judy said her job (as a pastor) is to help teach her congregants how to make faith-based decisions, not what those decisions should be.
At one point, I stepped in and said that we were talking a lot about integrating faith and politics and that I agree that that's very important, to be internally consistent and holistic and all that, but there's a different between doing that in yourself and talking about politics in the pulpit, and that I worried we were moving the conversation in a direction such that we were conflating these two -- which while certainly connected, are distinct issues.
At the end of the discussion, Judy said that while she thinks we (the young adults) need to have our space and so she won't usually be attending, she really loved this thoughtful discussion.
Trelawney stepped down as Young Adult Minister back in April (!) because she had been devoting a great deal of energy to caring for her disabled father and working on her Ph.D. and now she was pregnant and something had to give and much as she loved everything she was doing, the thing she could most stand to let go was her job here. So we've been jointly picking up the slack and making sure that group continues to happen and so on. But in recent weeks it's been clear that we're all (Meredith especially, as she took over all the organizational work) tired. So I was stoked to see Judy's [the CAUMC minister -- Gary retired] email Wednesday morning saying they'd hired someone for the position. They hired Sean (CWM), whom I didn't even know had applied for it -- though I knew he was applying for jobs. He's one of my favorite (CWM) people, but I really didn't know how he would be in this position.
I was totally impressed by his facilitating (which I think is one of the biggest things we need from the group leader).
Example: During discussion, Seth said he didn't entirely understand something Mike had said, and we then ended up getting into some other discussion and Sean stepped in and said he wanted to make sure that Seth's question got answered. And Sean has a very gentle presence about him.
And his effortlessly stepping in/up to a leadership role.
Early in Affirmations, Mike remembered that he and Seth were gonna take out the air conditioners and Sarah would be leaving soon -- but if they went and did it now, we'd have to pause Affirmations and we'll all get home later.
Sean said, "Would it be a faux pas for some people to go take out the air conditioners and some people to go wash dishes and then we can all come back together and finish doing Affirmations?"
We were like: \o/
Seth joked, "YOU'RE HIRED!"
Seth Affirmed my weighing different ideas/issues (and then in making a decision on them), said that was a real skill. I heard an implication of the skill involved in teasing out the distinctions, but I may have been projecting.
Meredith Affirmed that I "took [her] idea and ran with it :)"
Sean Affirmed my facilitating tonight -- and my kind of showing him the ropes as we went along.
I was realizing over dinner that I'm the same person at CAUMC small group as I am at CWM, which comforts me.