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Preaching politics

Pastors plan to speak this weekend in favor of McCain. That should get the IRS' attention.

September 27, 2008

Congress, the 1st Amendment states unequivocally, shall "make no law" that interferes with the free exercise of religion. That's a sound principle that has served this nation well, and one that undergirds our free speech and assembly rights as well. In practice, it is accompanied by a modern corollary: The government agrees not to tax churches and other nonprofit organizations, as long as they agree to limit their speech. They may preach on God and country, on war and peace, but they must not endorse candidates for office if they want to avoid the tax man. As Christ enjoined: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's."

To be sure, it's a bargain whose benefits are debatable. It might make more sense for the government to tax churches just as it taxes other organizations that operate under the 1st Amendment (newspapers and TV stations, for instance), and we'd be happy with churches that pay taxes and ministers who endorse candidates. But under today's rules, churches that have accepted the exemption also have accepted the prohibition against endorsements, and most faithfully abide by them.

Comes now, however, a group of ministers in California and elsewhere who intend to use their pulpits this weekend to urge parishioners to support GOP presidential candidate John McCain. "Nobody who follows the Bible can vote for" Democrat Barack Obama, one member of the cloth told The Times' Duke Helfand.

That statement is staggering in its presumptuousness -- how comfortable it must be to know which candidate is favored by God. Moreover, while it advances one American value (speech), it violates another (the separation of church and state). Both Jesus and the framers of the Constitution saw the value in such separation, which prevents the suppression of religion by the state and ensures that our civil institutions do not favor one faith over another.

Conservatives are not alone in pushing the boundaries of the tax exemption. In the 2004 presidential campaign, a pastor at All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena condemned the war in Iraq just before election day, and the IRS responded with a grueling, two-year investigation. The comments were provocative, but they were not candidate-specific and fell within the generally accepted range of religious discourse. The tax code does not prevent pastors from opposing war. By contrast, Sunday's effort is deliberately political and specifically targeted at favoring McCain, and thus directly challenges the rules on political participation.

"My kingdom," Jesus said elsewhere in the Bible, "is not of this world." Would that his ministers better followed his example.

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