IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

This Week in God, 11.8.14

Imagine a day in which 1,600 churches broke the law, on purpose, endorsing candidates from the pulpit and daring the government to sanction them.
First up from the God Machine this week is a closer look at a biennial event known as "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," and which has turned into quite a religio-political phenomenon. Rachael Bade reported this week on just how big a deal this has become.

A record number of rogue Christian pastors are endorsing candidates from the pulpit this election cycle, using Sunday sermons to defiantly flout tax rules. Their message to the IRS: Sue me. [...] [T]he number of pastors endorsing candidates in what they call Pulpit Freedom Sunday jumped from 33 people in 2008 to more than 1,600 this year, according to organizers, Alliance Defending Freedom.

As long-time readers may recall, under federal tax law, tax-exempt houses of worship and religious ministries are prohibited from intervening in political campaigns, either in support of or opposition to a candidate or a party. Those who violate the law run the risk of IRS penalties, up to and including the loss of their tax-exempt status.
For the right, specifically a group called Alliance Defending Freedom, the law is outrageous, and the way to prove it is to force a legal confrontation. It's a simple enough plan:: encourage pastors to break the law, deliberately, in the hopes of IRS sanctions. The church would then have the basis for a test case, financed by ADF, challenging the penalty in the courts and urging judges to strike down the legal limits themselves.
As msnbc's Emma Margolin recently reported, the IRS "hasn't taken the bait," a posture that's drawn criticism from my friends at Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
But the larger question is, do the pastors engaging in civil disobedience have a point? Do they have the right under the First Amendment to endorse like-minded candidates from the pulpit if they so choose?
Not really.
Remember, the law only applies to partisan elections.  Religious leaders who want to use their pulpits to preach for or against marriage rights, abortion, the death penalty, or any other issue are free to do so.
But when it comes to electioneering, these churches have effectively made a deal with the feds: the pastors will enjoy the benefits of a tax-exemption, and in exchange, their house or worship will be non-partisan. "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" wants to break the deal -- the churches should get the benefit, the argument goes, without the cost.
And that's where the First Amendment argument breaks down. The fact remains that if a tax-exempt group wants to get more engaged in partisan politics, endorsing candidates and supporting parties, pastors always maintain the right to give up its tax exemption and become a political group, intervening in campaigns to their hearts' content.
Also from the God Machine this week:
* Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), reportedly gearing up for another presidential  campaign, recently did an interview with the Christian Post in which he raised the specter of anti-Christian prosecution in America. His argument took an unfortunate turn: "The slide toward wholesale persecution is a process, Santorum said, pointing to Nazi Germany to argue that just as the Jews in that country found it 'unfathomable' that anything like the Holocaust could ever happen, so too does it seem unfathomable that anything like that could ever happen in America."
* An unexpected report: "Satanism is on the rise, according to the International Association of Exorcists, whose members recently convened with Pope Francis to receive a blessing at the Vatican. The group, which consists of around 300 members, gathered in Rome last week to discuss the impact of the occult and Satanism with the Pope, who is adamant about the fight against Satan in his sermons. The Pope took time to commend the group for helping those who are suffering from the 'devil's works'" (thanks to my colleague Will Femia for the tip).
* The latest out of Chicago: "The Archdiocese of Chicago on Thursday released thousands of internal documents showing how it hid the sexual abuse of children by 36 priests, adding to similar disclosures made earlier this year and fulfilling a pledge by an ailing Cardinal Francis George to release the files before he retires later this month."
* And an unusual story out of South Florida: "Two church pastors and a 90-year-old man were charged for feeding homeless people in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, under a strict new city ordinance that virtually bans private groups from handing out food..... Homeless activist Arnold Abbott, 90, and Christian ministers Dwayne Black of the Sanctuary Church in Fort Lauderdale and Mark Sims of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Coral Springs were handing out meals in a park on Sunday, two days after Fort Lauderdale's ordinance took effect, when police approached them with their sirens flashing, Black said. The three were issued citations and face a $500 fine or 60 days in jail."