March 28, 2020

Why “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” is a farce

Let no man break the laws of the land, for he that keepeth the laws of God hath no need to break the laws of the land. Wherefore, be subject to the powers that be, until he reigns whose right it is to reign, and subdues all enemies under his feet. – Doctrine and Covenants 58:21-22


Although a Mormon bishop is the LDS counterpart to a pulpit rabbi, a bishop spends considerably less time preaching from the pulpit. In an average year, a bishop will deliver a sermon to the congregation only once, during the annual ward conference. He also takes an opportunity several times a year to share his conviction, or testimony, that LDS teachings are true, but these are brief five-minute talks that are spontaneous and unrehearsed. While bishops can choose to speak more often, most of us are content to preside at our Sunday meetings and let other members speak to the congregation.

When I heard that the Alliance Defending Freedom was once again encouraging religious leaders to break the law by endorsing candidates and/or political parties on “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” I realized that there’s a job out there that I need to apply for: Chief IRS Enforcer of 501(c)(3) provisions.

First of all, I am very much opposed to the awarding of tax-exempt status to churches and synagogues, including my own. If churches are offering a superior spiritual product, then they should be able to find enough followers to donate to their cause and allow them to pay their share of taxes. If they can’t, then they’ll have to fold, just like businesses do. I work hard to support my wife (a stay-at-home mom), our daughter, and our child in embryo (Florina is due in April). If someone has a good explanation for why I have to pay taxes while rich churches don’t, I’d love to hear it. If paying taxes means that churches have to cut back on their building and other expenses, then they’ll finally – Hallelujah! — be subject to the same budgetary limitations that the rest of us face.

Mind you, I don’t fault churches for taking advantage of their special tax status, including the fiction that religious donations are not “income” for religious organizations. It’s just that I don’t think that this status should be extended to them. The loss of a tax deduction for tithing contributions to my church would be a small price to pay in order to see churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and Scientology centers write long-overdue checks to the government.

However, I don’t get to make the tax rules, so religious organizations are currently allowed to be tax dodgers. In exchange for this privilege, the IRS asks pastors, rabbis and bishops not to directly or indirectly endorse or support political candidates or campaigns from the pulpit. That seems like a reasonable request to me. The Alliance Defending Freedom claims that the Constitution permits free speech from the pulpit, which should include the right to endorse candidates and campaigns. Fair enough, but my copy of the Constitution doesn’t include the right to receive tax-exempt status from the government. If pastors want to endorse candidates from the pulpit, then they have every right to do so, provided that they first renounce their 501(c)(3) status. If they don’t do this, then it seems to me that they’re breaking a promise they’ve made to the government – hardly a good Christian (or Jewish) thing to do.

Another reason that I take a dim view of preaching politics from the pulpit is that it is both unnecessary and self-aggrandizing to do so. Next Sunday I will join LDS bishops around the country in reading a letter from the pulpit reminding congregants that in an election season their church espouses political neutrality. As a bishop in a Christian church, it’s my duty to ensure that Christian principles and scriptural truths are taught to my congregants. If our Sunday School teachers and other instructors are doing their jobs, there shouldn’t be any need for me to stand up on Sunday and tell our members how to vote. Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith famously stated that he taught his people correct principles and then let them govern themselves.

Whenever I hear pastors make political speeches, I always want to ask them whether God has told them to do so. I’d also like to know whether they think that their congregants are too stupid to connect the political dots for themselves. It’s a shame that a serious organization like the Alliance Defending Freedom believes that encouraging pastors to break promises by preaching politics from the pulpit is a productive use of its time. It is my hope that the IRS will call the preachers’ bluff and strip them of their tax-exempt status ASAP. Men and women of the cloth shouldn’t be able to use the Constitution to hide their political agendas and avoid rendering unto Caesar that which he is due.

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