“Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”
This is clearly untrue, right? There is no way that in the land of the free where free speech is written into the very first amendment of the constitution right after a clause guaranteeing the free exercise of religion, that pastors are being censored! You might be thinking I am some wacko "right wing evangelical extremist" who saw a story on my Facebook news feed and I didn't bother to check the sources.
Well, I'm not reacting to anything I saw on Facebook or any other social media source. This isn't about a recent story like the Mayor of Houston demanding sermons from pastors, but that story did inspire me to think about some of the laws on the books regarding pastors and speech. As far as being a "right wing evangelical extremist", I'll let you decide. Whatever the labels, hear me out.
Prior to 1954 churches regularly addressed the issue of politics. Some churches made the decision to openly endorse certain candidates for political office. In fact, the churches involvement and willingness to address social ills has often led to reform. Slavery came to an end in this country because of the voice of Christian preachers like John Wesley who said, "Give liberty to whom liberty is due, that is, to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature. Let none serve you but by his own act and deed, by his own voluntary action. Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion. Be gentle toward all men; and see that you invariably do with every one as you would he should do unto you." In 1790 James Dana delivered a sermon deriding slavery and its practice. Of course there were many sermons like that of James Dana. Who would want to limit such speech?
What happened in 1954 that changed all this? LBJ (President Lyndon Johnson) proposed a bill while he was in the senate limiting the speech that comes from America's pulpit. Many pastors and churches believe that it is unwise to endorse candidates. As a result, the push back over the last 60 years has been limited. I myself think it is generally unwise to endorse candidates from the pulpit, but could there be a context where addressing a particular candidate would be appropriate?
The short answer is yes, there could be many. For example, a not too far fetched hypothetical situation where addressing a particular candidate would be appropriate is this: if a particular candidate were to run who had previously supported bills that might demand churches and pastors perform same sex weddings, it would be very appropriate for pastors to speak against this candidate, and to do so in a sermon. Is that it? No, another not too far fetched hypothetical would be if a Muslim candidate in Dearborn, Michigan were running for office with the intent of instituting Sharia law. Dearborn has a significant Muslim population. In such a case it may be wise for a church to speak against a political candidate. If Churches had free speech, there are still more benefits.
Generally speaking churches promote moral behavior in society. As the law is right now, a church is not able to speak against candidates who are corrupt and behaving in immoral manners. If churches had the ability to speak against candidates, it may be the case that they would behave better out of fear that that pastors might condemn their behavior and harm their chances of reelection. I wouldn't get my hope up too high, but it might help a little.
The law passed in 1954 ought to be repealed for many reasons, but the first is that it is unconstitutional. The first amendment makes no distinction between for profit and not for profit organizations. Second, there are very real scenarios where it would be appropriate for churches to engage in such things. Third, there are too many issues that the Bible addresses that are considered political.
John Byrne is a pastor who has been spouting off his opinions his entire life (just ask his mom). This little blog is his venue for continuing in this tradition.