Politics at Religious Meetings

February 28, 2008

The IRS recently notified the United Church of Christ that it is investigating if a speech last year by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama at the general synod meeting of the UCC violated laws for tax-exempt organizations. This news has already sparked a lot of discussion about if the investigation is legitimate and why it was not announced until now. However, the big issue here for Christians should be if it is wise to have candidates speak at the annual meetings of their religious bodies. Last month, I critiqued the joint meeting of the National Baptists for allowing Obama and Hillary Clinton to address their gathering. Unfortunately, the blame goes both ways. For instance, in 2004 George W. Bush addressed annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals. Ironically, of all of these speeches, the only one being investigated so far by the IRS is the only one where the speaker in question was actually a member of the denomination.

The problem with such occasions during a campaign year is that they could give the impression--even if inaccurate--that the religious body has taken sides. Even if the IRS decides that such addresses are okay, religious groups should still avoid them. Ministry can be difficult enough without adding another barrier because of one's public partisan involvement. As I argued in my book (For God's Sake, Shut Up!), we must not give up our higher calling in order to play politics.