Like many pastors in the US, I received a letter from the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Rev. Lynn for some reason felt it necessary to remind me of the IRS regulations on 501(c) (3) tax exempt organizations, which are mostly (but not always) Churches, which forbids such groups from endorsing or opposing candidates for political office or intervening directly or indirectly in partisan campaigns. He also reminds me that this free-speech muzzle does not stifle my right to speak out on religious, moral and political issues. How condescendingly quaint.
Rev. Lynn also in said letter warns me that if I do cross that line and endorse or oppose a candidate for political office he will send the Speech Police knocking at the Church door. (I'll be hospitable.) The IRS according to Lynn will revoke our tax-exempt status. Except that in the 58yrs since the IRS adopted the "Johnson Amendment" (inserted into the tax code in 1954 by then Senator Lyndon B. Johnson who got ticked at a group of Baptist ministers that opposed his reelection in Texas, stating that pastors cannot get involved in partisan politics) they have rarely tried to enforce it. This is most likely because the IRS knows the Johnson Amendment is a violation of the First Amendment. (At this point the Supremes have yet to sing about it.) But the IRS can and has made life miserable for some religious groups with audits and fines. So I don't doubt their coercive power.
So who are these Americans United for the Separation of Church and State? The name sounds so good. I too am for the separation of Church and State but what they want is the total domination of society by the State and the absolute silencing of religious voices in America. Americans United got their start in 1947 when they joined together to oppose proposed government funding of non-public schools (read: Catholic schools). So from their anti-Catholic beginnings that have matured to despising not only Catholics but any religious group they consider to be on the "right". They even list on their website (au.org) "10 of the religious groups that want to run your life" and in the top 5 of their "most dangerous religious right groups" is the US Conference of Bishops. What an honor!
I realize that Rev. Lynn et.al., are distressed that Churches have an IRS exemption and that religious ideas can compete in the public square along side non-religious ideas. The Church's IRS exemption predates the IRS as our founders saw that the power to tax was the power to control and they did not want the government controlling nor meddling in the affairs of the Church. (Though we do pay sales tax, payroll tax, licensing and permitting fees and every other tax other than most property and income tax.) That the public square is an even playing field (or should be) is a direct result of the First Amendment: no law prohibiting the free exercise (of religion) thereof.
Rev. Lynn's letter is less than genuine as his real agenda is thinly veiled. Truth is that what he and his organization want is not so much the silencing of religion in the public square but the silencing of what they consider to be right-wing religious groups. Rev. Lynn and Americans United would never take on a left leaning group nor object if every pastor and rabbi in American got up and endorsed a leftist candidate from the pulpit. While they complain loudly about the religious right forcing their faith on others they have no qualms about forcing a progressive and atheistic agenda on others. Why is it only a one-way street?
Personally I do not consider myself part of the religious right or left. I prefer the Catholic label. While we as Catholics retain the right to endorse a candidate and not because of his or her political affiliation but whomever we believe will better serve the common good, uphold human dignity and respect our religious values. However, as a Church we have decided that endorsing candidates is just not part of our mission at this time. But as Americans we believe it is still our right. We choose rather to teach moral truths and to vote accordingly when possible and where applicable.
And those moral truths (which are not reducible to religious values) are well defined and applicable to humanity in general. They are foundational for any civilized and just society: Not killing your children, not euthanizing your loved ones, not destroying the institution of marriage, defending religious liberty are not specifically religious concerns, they are human ones. What is also well defined is the distinction this year between the platforms of the two national parties vis-à-vis these same moral truths. Since one party choose this year to align its platform with these moral values and the other mostly did not and our preaching and teaching is also on those same values, this does not constitute an endorsement on our part. It is merely a convergence.
I will give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. But I will not barter with Caesar nor ask Caesar's permission to speak the truth. I'm sorry that Rev. Lynn can't sleep at night for worry over what is said in the Churches in America but he might sleep more soundly if he lived in a nation that doesn't consider itself "under God".
Whether to endorse or oppose candidates from the pulpit is an issue for pastors and their congregations to decide. It is not for Rev. Lynn and Americans United to decide. But in the spirit of the First Amendment, I can promise Rev. Lynn that I will not endorse Barack Obama nor will I oppose Mitt Romney for president.
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Fr. John Bonavitacola