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Pulpit Politicking Returns for 2010 Election Cycle

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In a heated campaign season, the third 'Pulpit Freedom Sunday' in as many years, held this past weekend, garnered near equal attention as at its conception during the historic 2008 election. Per the initiative's blueprint, pastors from around the country purported to exercise their freedoms of speech and religion by endorsing political candidates in brazen violation of the current tax code; they then sent those sermons directly to the IRS to tout their civic transgression.

A tripling in the number of participants this cycle from 2008 -- from 33 to 100 pastors -- could be seen as a victory for the project's organizer, the $30M per year Alliance Defense Fund (ADF); but that number is still quite meager given that there may well be just as many churches in the United States as laundromats. The sheer insouciance from the IRS towards all tax-deviant clerics following Pulpit Freedom Sundays in 2008 and 2009 leaves little precedent for a change in policy this year.

Nevertheless, the ADF is determined to provoke a lawsuit from the IRS so as to challenge the 1954 provision that prohibits political endorsements from tax-exempt 501(c)(3) charitable organizations, which includes most religious institutions. According to the ADF's Erik Stanley, "We believe if a federal judge looked at the constitutionality of what the IRS has done, it wouldn't take long for the judge to strike it down as unconstitutional."

This prediction may be optimistic, and it further begs the question of whether the ADF seeks to be a serious advocacy group, or merely a headlining dramaturge. Arcane legality aside, the pulpit politicking effort is widely opposed by ordinary Americans, with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finding 70 percent in opposition to pulpit political endorsements. Moreover, the effort suffers from commensurate obloquy within the clerical community itself. Pulpit Freedom Sunday's participants have been publicly rebuked by a far larger interfaith alliance of pastors, who have pledged to distance themselves from partisan politics altogether.

Indeed, despite the ADF's many First Amendment evocations, its intent may not mirror the sentiments of those who sought to establish a Constitutional defense for individual liberty of conscious (the phraseology adopted by the founders from John Locke) in the first place. Fittingly, the clash in 1776, as it was this past Sunday, was actually over taxation (or an exemption thereof) -- except that in the period following American independence, the fight was against newborn States' efforts to assess compulsory taxes from the full populace to fund preferred denominational institutions, rather than on whether or not the intuitions themselves were to be taxed by a secular central government. These countervailing denominational fears were embodied in legion by Thomas Jefferson in his "Bill For Establishing Religious Freedom":

"To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness..."

Unlike today's church-state clash, disputants in post-Revolutionary America lacked a readily available secular adversary, as political secularism would not even emerge until the late 19th Century. Instead, fears were born of acutely diversified Protestant denominations anxious that, with government as merely a conduit, one sect could achieve supremacy over all the others, especially through tax policy (what James Madison designated "the violence of faction"). And herein lies the irony of the ADF's initiative. The original effort to separate church and state was carried out by strictly religious agents fearful of oppression by other religious agents of a very similar ilk. In retrospect, the ingenious revelation to divorce the two seems almost incidental, and yet inevitable all the same.

Money being fungible, it does not take any logical contortion to accept that a tax and a tax exemption are principally the same in an ultimate policy sense. The foregone revenues from a church that exceeds the conditional limits of its tax-exemption status is made up for by all, regardless of one's religious affiliation or belief. And so, in effect, all Americans who pay taxes are furnishing select partisan political actors with an IRS discount. Rather than embrace an originalist, non-preferential tax regime that protects all citizens' individual liberty of conscience, the ADF and its coterie of pastors now seem to be channeling a contrived historicism so as to have their cake and eat it too.

According to Americans United, a watchdog group that focuses on matters of church and state, Pulpit Freedom Sunday is hardly a lone measure in its attempt to activate evangelicals, whose votes are advised by sectarian ecumenism as much as by practical concerns. Countless events are being held nationwide in the lead-up to November -- from prayer vigils, to marches, to conventions and conferences -- that combine worship with voter registration and cloaked partisan political messaging. However, unlike pulpit politicking, these events, despite being rather disingenuous, are legal and at least slightly more reminiscent of the democratic cacophony of eras past.

The resurgence of the religious right in politics, as Americans United describes it, bodes ill for America's already frayed political and social fabric; but at least in a case of fortuitous irony, the IRS is probably already saddled with too much else to take the ADF's bait and capitulate before a Court that has demonstrated nothing less than bitter contempt for any constraining measure against speech and expression. In those races where traditional social issues reign, this year's religio-political movement may well achieve some modest ends. But elsewhere, most American families will likely be concerned with more pressing matters -- such as from whence their monthly income hails.

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