Partisan Politics in the Pulpit?

June 12, 2013

On Monday night, pastor-turned-politician Mike Huckabee seemed to be confusing his two professions (the photo is one I took of him during the 2008 presidential campaign, with a Christian flag in the background on his political stage). Speaking at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Pastors' Conference that is held in conjunction with the SBC's annual meeting, Huckabee urged pastors to consider giving up the tax-exempt status of their churches and institutions in order to preach politics. A former Southern Baptist pastor himself, Huckabee should know better. During his "sermon," the Fox News host declared:
The recent revelations that the Internal Revenue Service has been targeting people of faith - people who are conservative, people who are pro-Israel - and have been picking out the parts of belief and speech and faith that government seems to approve and that which it doesn't approve has brought up a very important reality that I think, sooner or later, as believers, we need to confront. ... You may not clap real loud for this, but at least hear me out and think about it and pray about it. ... I think we need to recognize that it may be time to quit worrying so much about the tax code and start thinking more about the truth of the living God, and if it means that we give up tax-exempt status and tax deductions for charitable contributions, I choose freedom more than I choose a deduction that the government gives me permission to say what God wants me to say.
Huckabee added that church may need to say to the government:
"Keep your deductions. Keep the exemptions. We stand more faithful with what God would have us to say, and we choose our freedom more than our financial benefit."
Huckabee's comments are problematic for a couple of reasons. First, pastors are actually allowed to talk about issues from the pulpit without endangering a church's tax-exempt status. What the pastors cannot do is make partisan endorsements in campaigns. So there is nothing in the IRS code stopping the prophetic, just the partisan. Second, churches must not become partisan tools of politicians. What Huckabee is encouraging is for churches to abandon their spiritual, prophetic birthright for a mess of partisan pottage. I critique this attitude in my books For God's Sake, Shut Up! and Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics. To his credit, Huckabee claimed he was not trying to put politics in the pulpit:
I would never suggest, ever, that you would turn your pulpit into some political podium. But I would urge that the pulpit would be a powerful, prophetic and purposeful punch in the gut to a culture that is ungodly and unholy.
By "political podium" he probably means "partisan podium" as those two terms are too often used synonymously. Prophetically speaking out on cultural issues would be inherently political, but not necessarily partisan. But his disclaimer here does not make sense since pastors can already speak out in that manner without needing to give up tax-exempt status. The only reason to give up the tax-exempt status would be to become even more political in a partisan manner.  

Huckabee also made an odd comment during his remarks. Although apparently attempting to show he could criticize both parties, the former Republican governor and presidential candidate instead sounded a bit of a messianic tone. Huckabee declared:
Well, I've got a news flash for the GOP: I plan to take my last ride in life on a white horse, not on an elephant and not on a donkey. And I will stick with the word of God. And if the party, any party, goes a different way, I stick with Jesus. I believe he is forever.
Apparently Huckabee sees himself as a member of the heavenly army mentioned in Revelation. That may be so, but until then it might be good to call off the crusade and not drive people away with partisan pulpits. Interestingly, the day before Huckabee's remarks, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) held its sixth annual "Pulpit Freedom Day." This is a day when pastors are encouraged to deliberately violate the IRS tax-exempt rules and endorse a partisan candidate (I have critiqued this effort in previous years in blog posts here and here). This year, however, the ADF apparently showed they do not understand the tax code and merely urged pastors to speak about moral topics instead of endorse candidates. But that is allowed under tax-exempt rules. Not sure why the ADF pulled its punch this year, but it is good that they were not encouraging partisan endorsements (although it is unfortunate they were misleading people about the nature of the tax rules). The ADF's efforts and Huckabee's comments demonstrate that confusion exists about what pastors can say politically. And these two examples unfortunately show that confessional politics remains alive.

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