Separating Church And State

Occasionally the pastor of your church may preach on the Ten Commandments. “Thou shalt not steal,” he may remind you.

Does he add that Christianity forbids shoplifting at the local grocery store? Does he say embezzling from your employer is wrong?

Probably not. Once the foundation – “Thou shalt not steal” – is laid, that ought to be enough.

Why, then, do some in the clergy believe they need to instruct their congregations on how to vote in elections?

It’s been going on for years but now, the Internal Revenue Service is taking another look at the issue. Churches are tax-exempt, and one of the requirements for such status is to avoid involvement in politics.

It is a conflict that raises many questions. For example, if a priest feels a candidate’s policies are strongly anti-Christian, how can he in good conscience not campaign against that person?

Clearly, however, the IRS requirement is linked closely to the Constitutional requirement of separation of church and state. What happens if, say, an entire denomination begins actively and specifically supporting an incumbent office holder, while benefitting from a tax exemption. That would – and should – raise eyebrows.

We tolerate criticism of policy. Roman Catholics have every right to complain about “Obamacare’s” requirements on birth control coverage in health insurance policies, for example. President Barack Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is perfectly free to say from the pulpit, “God damn America.”

But when a pastor goes from general criticism or support for policy to actively campaigning for or against specific candidates, a line is crossed. Some churchgoers, even those who agree with ministers’ conclusions, are uncomfortable when they sense politics in the pulpit.

Look at it this way: If your minister is good at his job, he’s already instilled your faith’s basic values in you. It should be up to you to decide which candidates uphold those values best. Making the decision for you is an insult to your intelligence.

My guess is that unless a substantial number of pastors become involved in campaigning, the IRS will stay out of the controversy. What pastors tempted to engage in the practice should worry about is how many of their parishioners will decide to stay out of the pews.

Myer can be reached at: