A few weeks ago, I started getting spam from Jim Garlow, the pastor of the Skyline megachurch in Lemon Grove, Calif., about the Pulpit Freedom Sunday initiative that he has been spearheading with Glenn Beck. This Sunday, about 1,500 pastors across the country heeded Garlow's call to preach about the presidential campaign in defiance of the IRS prohibition on public political endorsements for 501-C3 tax-deductible organizations.
Around the same time that Garlow started spamming me, I accidentally stumbled across a different initiative started by two Mennonite pastors and an Episcopal layperson, who didn't have nearly the resources of Garlow, called Election Day Communion, which has the modest goal of getting 100 churches in all 50 states to celebrate communion on Election Day in order to remember our unity as Christians in a season that has tried to redefine us according to our partisan affiliations. These two contrasting movements capture two radically different visions for how to be the church in a contentious political season.
The difference between Pulpit Freedom Sunday and Election Day Communion ultimately comes down to a difference in how we define the freedom that matters. In American secular discourse, we define freedom as the absence of control by a higher power, usually the government. Freedom means that the government cannot tell us what we can say or who we can meet with, among other things. Pulpit Freedom operates under this definition of freedom.
Of course, pastors have never not had freedom of speech in our country; the question is whether other taxpayers have to subsidize the tax liability of their churches or not. The law as currently written says that tax-deductible charities should have their taxes subsidized as long as they stay out of partisan politics. So when Garlow and his 1,500 fellow pastors send the IRS DVD's of the sermons they preached this past Sunday making partisan political endorsements, what they are asking is to have their partisan political activities subsidized by the rest of U.S. taxpayers.
The Bible has a different way of defining freedom than American secular discourse. It recognizes that people are easily entrapped by the social conventions and mass cultural narratives that are called "the world" (James 4:4) and "powers and principalities" (Ephesians 6:12). Romans 12:2 captures the goal of Christian freedom against these entrapping influences: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." One of the most pernicious entrapping influences of our time is the all-consuming partisan argument that makes us Republicans and Democrats before we are anything else, which for Christians splits the body of Christ in two. Election Day Communion is an attempt by Christians to wrest ourselves free from the worldly entrapment of partisan identity. It is a call to re-member who we are in the original sense of the word: to "re-member the body of Christ as the body of Christ, confessing the ways in which partisan politics has separated us from one another and from God."
Christians are supposed to care how we present ourselves to the world. 1 Peter 2:13-15 says, "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human authority ... For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people." Peter puts the onus of public misperception on Christians themselves; he would have little patience for the tendency of Christians today to blame the "mainstream media" for making them look bad.
Ultimately, it comes down to the question of whether Christians want to be a special interest group or a kingdom of disciples. When our witness to the world is to use the subsidy of fellow taxpayer's money to flex our political muscle, we have redefined ourselves "in conformity to the pattern of this world."
Instead, if Christians want to show the world a freedom to live outside the rottenness that so many of our fellow Christians have been complicit in creating, then we need to offer the witness of a peaceable community that transcends partisan divisiveness. The good news for non-Christians reading this is that Jesus is saving you from His people by causing enough of us Christians to recoil in disgust at what we've become. If you'd like to see a better vision for how Christianity can rise above our toxic political landscape, then check out an Election Day Communion event near you -- or, better yet, organize your own!