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.

5 comments

  1. The African-American Baptist bodies need to break the habit of inviting candidates. Hillary and Barack had no business speaking before that crowd, whether in person or via satellite.

    Now, I think the Obama @ UCC General Synod is a different story. He's an active member of a UCC congregation which as you know is the largest UCC congregation in America. Whether he's running for President or not, Barack Obama will always be the most visible and well-known UCCer. His participation in the Synod just makes sense.

    Similarly, I have no problem with Mike Huckabee speaking at the Annual Meeting of the SBC. He has become one of the most well known Southern Baptists around. As long as both men stick to the tax law, I wouldn't complain about their presence.

    It's the pandering that politicians do towards religious groups with which they are not associated with that bothers me.

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  2. Brian and BDW,

    Good points. I complement your consistency on this topic.

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  3. Thanks for the comments!

    BDW: I agree that Obama's membership is an important difference, which is why I noted the ironic nature of the IRS only looking at this one. I do not think a denomination should allow candidates to speak, especially when the individual is not even a member of the denomination.


    Cat's dad: Thanks! It is an important line to walk.

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  4. Christians should not shy away from politics. Sometimes, the mission of the church has political aspects, such as advocating for better access to healthcare.

    My position is that religious groups who want candidates to speak at general meetings should invite candidates from both sides.

    Who knows, though, perhaps the UCC invited McCain, but got turned down. I'm speculating here.

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  5. I do think that religious groups should speak out on political issues, but in a non-partisan way. The National Baptists do invite candidates from both sides but only one side shows up, which works to increase the perception that the National Baptists are partisan.

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