Pastoral Politicking Puts Church-State in Question

By Don Rollins

In his voluminous book from earlier this year, Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul, author John Barry reminds us that there is nothing new under the church-state sun – that our English forbears were fussing over the proper relationship between God and government long before the Separatists boarded the Mayflower.

And we have of course been fussing about that relationship ever since. Some of the tussles have been serious (Salem being one obvious example) some less so (the annual throw-down over crèches at the courthouse comes to mind).

But whatever the scale, whatever the presenting issue, sooner or later the discussion ends up at the base of Jefferson’s Wall of Separation.

For all our liberal lamenting, in light of four decades of frontal assaults from ridiculously-funded, corporatized right-wing religionists, the Wall remains remarkably intact. And the trending secularization of the nation can only shore it up.

But that is not to say that all is well on the church-state front.

If you’re a fan of bright-line religion and politics (and can handle a little robust spike in blood pressure) consider the case of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Until last October, they were pretty much one more in a long line of religion-based, hard-right lobbying groups bent on blurring said bright line.

But ADF grabbed serious headlines on Oct. 7 with this year’s Pulpit Freedom Sunday, its program in which conservative preachers openly defy the IRS’s 1954 ban on public endorsement of political candidates.

While the event has been around since 2008 – mostly serving as a vehicle for fundamentalist public witness against the ban – this year a record 1,470 pastors from 50 states took up the challenge, many openly endorsing specific candidates from the pulpit; some going so far as to send the IRS a written and recorded copy of their sermon text.

Call it baiting the trap.

The IRS response was a predictable and resounding no response. (You don’t have a lawyer to connect the dots between enforcing the ban and a potentially clear path to Judge Roberts’ court.)

But what the IRS wouldn’t do, a stalwart liberal church-state watchdog just did.

On Nov. 14, the left-leaning Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a suit in federal court designed to force the IRS’s hand. Included in the brief is a clause directing the Service to discontinue “a policy of non-enforcement of the electioneering restrictions against churches and religious organizations.”

Bait taken.

It’s unclear at this point how serious FFRF is about pursuing what is at face value a worthy libertarian strategy; but there can be no doubt that the risk involved is at least as great as any Establishment Clause payoff.

By doing nothing, the IRS is giving clear sanction to a practice that could, over time, erode the historical precedent of a high wall between religion and government. But in its zeal to press the issue, FFRF may be putting the Wall at risk in ways even more detrimental.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Eugene, Ore. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2012

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