FāVS has re-launched its Viewpoints feature, where each week our writers respond to a timely question about faith and ethics.
This week we’re asking a question about faith leaders and their role in politics.
To what extent should religious leaders be involved in politics?
Thomas Schmidt: I have several thoughts. First, a leader’s or an expert’s involvement should never extend to an endorsement and should be limited to education. It should be inversely proportional to one’s sense of entitlement. Eg., the more one believes they have been given an authority be a god, or that they are special, or the chosen, the less they should say. Their right to instruct depends on their ability to present a clear, thorough, and humble discussion of a broad and inclusive amount of diverse information. Take the problem of abortion. All sides can claim justification by right to life. No one should claim special dispensations from a god.
Any discussion should be thorough. For instance, any commentator needs to admit all sides can value life. And very importantly, any authority should admit their own need to see more information, admitting that they may likely be very incomplete in their thinking. All leaders would readily be able to admit new arguments and, critiquing themselves, change their views. Their involvement is to educate themselves and others, never to endorse a particular view.
Deb Conklin: Religious leaders should be adamantly political, but not partisan. Politics has to do with the welfare of the polis – the people. If religious leaders in the Christian tradition are not political, they are not following Jesus. Jesus was so ‘political’ that he was executed for his activities. If we call ourselves disciples of Jesus, then we need to be following his lead. We need to be speaking out on issues of social and economic justice – poverty, oppression, discrimination, inequities in our economic and governing institutions and practices. We need to be challenging systems of injustice.
On the other hand, we should NOT be partisan, i.e. having to do with parties and candidates. We should not be publicly supporting or endorsing specific candidates or parties. Having said that, I am clear that the last presidential election cycle involved issues that went beyond partisan to ethical and moral challenges. For the first time in my ministry, I felt called to make statements about the total moral bankruptcy of a specific candidate for office. The issues went beyond any reasonable political issue to fundamental issues of moral fitness for any leadership position. I hope that I never have to do so again. I hope that this country recovers some reasonable moral compass for assessing the fundamental fitness of candidates.
Neal Schindler: I recently read an article in The Spokesman-Review about a Coeur d’Alene pastor’s endorsement of Rep. Raul Labrador, who is running for governor of Idaho. In the article, Robert Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at George Washington University, is quoted as saying, “Churches are absolutely forbidden to engage in electioneering.” The Rev. Paul Van Noy, of CdA’s Candlelight Christian Fellowship, also gives his take on laws governing church-state interaction. He says a church “would have to spend 51 percent of their time and resources on political activity to be accused of spending the majority … that’s the IRS standard.”
However, that is decidedly not the IRS standard. According to its tax guide for religious organizations, such groups “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.” Tuttle notes, “If I make a contribution to a normal political campaign, that contribution is not tax-deductible.”
It seems pretty clear to me that donations to a religious group that engages in electioneering shouldn’t be tax-deductible. The choice seems obvious: Candlelight Christian Fellowship can either get special tax treatment, or it can engage in electioneering. Despite the pastor’s insistence that his endorsement is personal, and doesn’t represent his church’s official viewpoint, that assertion feels to me like little more than rhetorical legerdemain.
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