The separation of church and state is both one of our nation’s cornerstone achievements in social and political history and one of its least well understood. But nearly two and a half centuries later, this simple arrangement, along with many other of the Constitution’s achievements, is seemingly incompatible with modern social, cultural, and political realities.
Following a complicated and often bloody history in Europe during which the interests of the church and state were often intertwined — not to mention the often troubling early days of the American colonies — the Founding Fathers came to the conclusion that the best option for a healthy society was one in which religious entities and government bodies operated as independently of each other as possible. And so the First Amendment explicitly bars Congress from “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Over the years, the Constitution’s deftly worded call for both religious freedom and freedom from religion grew to include a codified understanding that churches could operate tax-free as non-profit entities as long as they were willing to abide by certain restrictions, which also exist for any other non-profit group. These restrictions include a prohibition on actively supporting or opposing a political party or specific candidate for office. Often in election years, the IRS finds itself revoking the tax-exempt status of groups that break these restrictions.
Now, it is no secret that churches have long been one of American society’s strongest voices in all manner of social and political causes, and from both sides of any given debate. Just as many staunch abolitionists found their beliefs rooted in their own Christianity, so did many slavery supporters. Meanwhile, sermons extolling the evils of alcohol and the virtues of women’s suffrage in the early 20th century gave way to sermons asking simple questions about the appalling lack of civil rights for African Americans.
Two Sundays ago, a small group of Lowcountry pastors took the extraordinary step of collectively disregarding that long-standing legal arrangement. Joining some 1,500 clergy nationwide, they spoke directly to their parishioners about the need to support a particular political candidate in the upcoming presidential election. Citing their right to free speech, these churches are directly challenging the IRS prohibition on supporting a candidate, while maintaining that this should not threaten their tax status, of course.
So, what drives this new and vocal group of Christian soldiers marching to the ballot box? It is likely the same desperate realization affecting the conservative movement in America as a whole: the nation is changing rapidly and they are uncomfortable with and unable to handle change that threatens to leave their deprecated and outmoded ideas behind.
A Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study released last week shows that for the first time Protestants are no longer a majority in America. In fact, one-fifth of Americans no longer consider themselves affiliated with any denomination. However, it must be noted that it is unclear how many of those one-fifth go to one of the so-called “non-denominational” churches that are increasingly prevalent in America’s abandoned strip malls and movie theaters on any given Sunday.
In short, the fear of becoming irrelevant is driving certain elements of the religious community into extreme panic mode — and it could backfire on them, leaving them wide open to public scrutiny into their financial operations and with a large tax bill due next year.
The problem is not that the pastors and churches involved are tilting at windmills. They do have a valid point about their rights to speak out in support of or against a candidate from the pulpit, however tasteless this might seem. Unfortunately, like many modern conservatives, they not only want their cake and to be able to eat it, they also want some of your cake in the form of massive tax breaks afforded to them by their tax-exempt status. They fail to see that their status as a non-tax paying entity means that they are not as entitled to the freedoms that other entities, or individuals, enjoy. A pastor in a pulpit is not the same as a private individual displaying a sign in their yard, or a corporation donating to a super PAC.
Churches, like government, have grown and changed since the early days of the Republic. Gone are the days of simple community churches, which first collected themselves into the grand institutions of American Protestantism and are now being replaced by non-denominational mega-churches. These churches no longer involve only a few people gathering on Sunday to help put on a service. Instead, they are staffed by dozens of full and part-time workers who deliver a polished performance each week to their willing audience.
While it may be time to rethink whether or not a church should enjoy the right of political speech, it cannot come without the understanding that those rights come with the price of being a contributing, tax-paying member to the larger society.