Wednesday, September 18, 2013

History Favors the Political Pulpit

In the mid-2000’s, the House of Representatives had introduced a piece of legislation – the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act – designed to address the bullying of pulpits by the IRS, and by liberal advocacy groups such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.  Had it been enacted, the Act would have changed the tax code by adding this language to it: 
“`(q) An organization described in section 170(b)(1)(a)(1) or section 508(c)(1)(A) shall not fail to be treated as organized and operated exclusively for a religious purpose, nor shall it be deemed to have participated in, or intervened in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office, for purposes of subsection (c)(3) or section 170(c)(2), 2055, 2106, 2522, or 4955 because of the content, preparation, or presentation of any homily, sermon, teaching, dialectic, or other presentation made during religious services or gatherings.'”
The legislation would not have affected the status quo for certain churches, and would have leveled the playing field for others.

The churches unaffected by the legislation would be those for whom no serious threat of IRS enforcement activities ever existed.  Those churches include the 500+ African American churches that not only had direct endorsements of  Jesse Jackson’s 1988 short-lived campaign for the Democratic nomination for President but actual had a coordinated, pulpit plea for donations to Jackson’s campaign.  Churches for whom the playing field would be leveled would include, for example, the Church at Pierce Creek, a Binghamton, New York church targeted for enforcement by the IRS after it ran paid advertisements in national daily newspapers opposing the 1992 candidacy of Bill Clinton because of disapproval of his stance of issues of concern to the Church.

The legislation had opponents.  In answer to some of their arguments, I penned a blog post on the Act, and the historical basis for political sermons even in election seasons.  As we move toward Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial election, there may be reason to anticipate church voices speaking to the election.  Take these thoughts as my view that the voices should not be silenced:

Let My People Go: Unleashing the Church by Unmuzzling the Pulpit
May 28, 2009 at 10:11pm

Wherein we learn that some folks have nothing to fear but liberty itself.

In an episode of the old “Star Trek” television series, Captain Kirk and two of his officers are kidnapped during transport and made to serve as slaves/thralls on the planet of Triskelion. Those who are familiar with Captain Kirk’s embodiment of the American ideal of liberty will realize the collision that had to occur between his fierce independence and the demands of servitude, particularly when that servitude was enforced with a restraining collar that was used to temporarily (or permanently) asphyxiate the sullen or disobedient thrall.

But the use of the collar as a means of restraining independence was already a decade old in America when “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” was beamed into American homes in 1968. But instead of a Triskelionian collar serving to constrain belligerence, the strictures of obedience to which I refer were accomplished by threatening the tax-exempt status of churches for the political expression of their “collared” clergy. And it is that constraint and enslavement that are squarely targeted by the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act.

It appears, however, that Pat Murphy is entirely comfortable with the illiberal circumstance of federal censorship of speech in houses of worship. But for two points, Pat Murphy’s concerns about the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act would be well taken. Unfortunately for Pat, those two salient points make all the difference in the world. Because they are dispositive, they deserve consideration. The first point about which Pat appears to be wrong is the current state of affairs for religious houses of worship in United States of America. If the current state affairs for churches in America could be described as “well enough,” then it would make perfect sense to leave “well enough” alone. Too many tales have been written about the disasters that befall folks who continued to tinker in pursuit of a perfection that cannot be attained on this mortal coil. Houses of worship would do well – if indeed they have got it as good is it can get – to decline to tinker with their circumstances.

Do houses of worship have it good as it can get? By “as good as it can get,” I mean to ask only, do houses of worship enjoy the freedoms that our Constitution, our Declaration of Independence, and our history suggest that they should. Plainly they do not. Instead, since 1954, the United States government has asserted a right to decide appropriate topics for discussion and instruction in American churches, synagogues, and mosques. That year, then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson slipped through the Congress that now familiar band on political involvement by organizations that enjoy nonprofit status under federal law. Johnson’s stealth attack on the liberty of American religious institutions reflected the danger one religious organization in Texas presented to his reelection prospects.

Apparently, Senator Johnson considered his continued presence in the United States Senate a value more important than the liberty of the pulpit in United States houses of worship. So, in a perfectly understandable – yet entirely inexcusable – act of self-preservation, Johnson pushed through the restriction that now is used by the Internal Revenue Service as a muzzle on the Nation’s reverends, rabbis, and religious. There was a time in our Nation’s history, when our religious leaders could be counted on to speak truth to power. In his powerfully persuasive, “Propaganda and the American Revolution,” Philip Davidson demonstrated the key role played by pastors in pulpits in creating a condition of openness to the idea of revolution. Davidson reminded us that these clerics, because of their service and their attire were known as the “black brigade.”

Examples abound of their clear exposition of Scripture, their persuasive rhetoric, and their unflinching pronouncements. Those unfamiliar with the role served by American clergy during the time of the American Revolution and the founding on our Republic would do well to spend some time reading in a collection of sermons from that era. The collection is entitled “Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730–1805," edited by Ellis Sandoz.

One particularly relevant sermon – given Mr. Murphy’s concern regarding the threat that reinvigorated liberty of speech may pose to American pulpits – was John Mitchell Mason’s “the Voice of Warning to Christians on the Ensuing Election of a President of the United States.” Reverend Mason delivered the sermon while he was the pastor of the Scotch Presbyterian Church on Cedar Street in New York City, and published it as was a custom of the time and circulated following its publication.  Entitled “the Voice of Warning,” Reverend Mason’s jeremiad stated in clear and unmistakable terms the threat that Mason perceived in Thomas Jefferson should he win the pending election contest for the presidency.

Mason explained in the subject of his sermon in this way:
“To lay before the people of the United States, proofs that a candidate for the office of their first magistrate, is an unbeliever in the scriptures; and that to confer such a distinction upon an open enemy to their religion, their Redeemer, and their hope, would-be mischief to themselves and sin against God . . . .”  
II Political Sermons of the Founding Era, 1730-1805,” at 1452 (Ellis Sandoz 2d ed. 1998). 
Entirely as an aside, one ground upon which Rev. Mason found Jefferson an unacceptable candidate for chief magistrate (President) was related to Jefferson’s peculiar views regarding the natural history of the African. Mason correctly quotes Jefferson as saying, regarding the African, “their inferiority is not the effect merely of their condition of life . . . .”

Rather, in Jefferson’s opinion, “the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”  II Political Sermons of the Founding Era, 1730-1805,” at 1457 (quoting T. Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, at 205, 209).  To Mason, the view that the African was created as a race distinct from the white man or the red man evidenced an incontrovertible proof of Jefferson’s rejection of the teaching of scriptures on the origins of mankind. He explained, “The scriptures teach that all nations are the offspring of the first and single pair, Adam and Eve, whom God created and placed in Paradise. This fact, interwoven with all the relations and all the doctrines of the Bible, is alike essential to its historical and religious truth.”  Id.  Multitudinous are the examples by which the former liberty of the pulpit in America may be proven.

To think that our history has been otherwise is to choose only the last forty years of our common life as the book from which our history will be taken. So, in this first point, Mr. Murphy is not well taken. Houses of worship in America are constrained greatly in their liberties in a manner inconsistent with the practices of the time of the founding of our nation, the drafting of its essential documents, and the understanding of those documents by those who drafted them. That constraint approaches a half-century in continuation.

Our nation’s history exceeds two and a quarter centuries, and in the vast majority of that time, the liberty feared by Murphy and promised by the Act in dispute now delighted in the pulpits.

The second principal point of error in Pat Murphy’s thinking is his perception of the future under the proposed legislation. Adopt this legislation, Murphy prognosticates, and the Bush Dynasty will be insured with the ultimate succession to the presidency of Jeb Bush and then the Jeb’s son, George Bush. 

Murphy’s fever unabated, he sees John Ashcroft elevated to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and set loose to undermine and wreak havoc upon established American legal doctrines. His temperature rising still, Murphy hallucinates an approaching era in which pulpit oratory is debased into mere political endorsements and there is lost forever to worshipers the expected and biblically appropriate reproof for and correction of sin and instruction in righteousness.

This argument of Murphy’s falls into one of the common logical fallacies in argument: the slippery slope. That failure in argument is familiar. If we allow point A, then inevitably effect B will occur. That effect B will in turn inevitably cause effect C. Before we know what has happened we will have leapt from A to Z. This argument musters no fact in support of its premises; this argument musters no indelible principle to prop it up. It appeals to the fears that some will always have that are unconnected to reality.

Murphy’s argument, taken to its logical conclusion, is a warrant for never passing a law, indeed, for never doing a thing. After all, the good that the law might do will be outweighed by the evil that will subsequently come. But human experience and more than a thousand years in our Western traditions teach us that the barbarians are always at the gate, that evil always runs on the fastest feet, that no good deed will go unpunished, and yet that we must still put our hands to the plow and accomplish the work of the day in which we are. At his heart, then, Murphy is a nay-saying doom-and-gloom artist whose soothsaying franchise offers no more in the line of credibility than that of the notorious Jamaican psychic, Miss Cleo.

The Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act restores a liberty to pulpits that is increasingly unfamiliar to those who stand in them and those who sit before them alike. That a cantankerous and crafty politician succeeded in stripping that liberty in the past is no reason not to work for the restoration of that liberty. Nor is there reason to fear the restoration of that liberty in the workings of Murphy’s febrile imagination.