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As most politically active Americans focused on the financial system bailout legislation over the weekend, 33 Christian ministers took the occasion of Sunday sermons to defy federal tax regulations prohibiting endorsement of political candidates by churches and other tax-exempt organizations. The immediate object of this protest was to pretty clearly demand the election of John McCain as a religious obligation because of Barack Obama’s position on abortion and same-sex relationships.
Organized by a Christian Right group called the Alliance Defense Fund, the Sunday action drew attention for its provocative nature. Churches and other religious (and for that matter, charitable) groups have generally been given broad latitude by the IRS to make or support political pronouncements so long as they avoid direct statements about candidate preferences.
But take a step back and look at the protest from a broader lens, and its audacity becomes much more apparent. These ministers are essentially (and in most cases, explicitly) taking a prophetic stance that stopping abortion and fighting same-sex relationships are so supremely important and so clearly required by divine commandment that all other issues of war, peace, justice, prosperity, and ethics must be subordinated, along with the presumed legitimacy of American society, including its courts. Moreover, all U.S. taxpayers must subsidize this prophetic stance by providing the protesting organizations with a continuing exemption from taxation for all their properties, and for contributions made to them.
It’s this dual nature of the protest–stepping outside the normal rules of religious reticence and respect for civil society, while demanding special treatment as a matter of right–that makes it outrageous.
I’ve written before about the spiritual hazards involved in the Christian Right’s prophetic stance. Add up all the scriptural evidence about abortion (practically non-existent) and homosexuality, and square it, and it doesn’t even begin to approximate the scriptural injunctions for respect for the prerogatives of civil society. That’s why prophets are so essential, and why false prophets are so dangerous: on occasion, the wickedness of a society becomes so fundamental that religious figures must indeed demand a suspension of “normal” life and call down judgment on their own country. But to use a profane phrase, if you adopt the prophetic stance, you better get it right.
Personally, as a Protestant Christian, I have a very hard time reading the Bible and concluding that criminalizing abortion or demonizing same-sex relationships are the Word’s clear demands for believers in America today. I also sometimes wonder if those who support this prophetic point-of-view have confused mere secular cultural conservatism–the tendency to divinize the Good Old Ways of life–with the law and the gospel. And as a non-fundamentalist, I have a hard time even talking with people who feel they need not bother understanding the underlying message of the Bible, but can simply pull individual scripture verses out of context to support whatever position they’ve decided to take.
Still, if these 33 ministers and others have prayerfully decided a prophetic stance against abortion and homosexuality is necessary, despite the terrible judgment they will bring down on themselves if they are misjudging God’s will, that is their right. But it’s the comcomitant demand that their stance be privileged by civil society, and subsidized by taxpayers, that really grates. It’s much like the cowardly whining heard each year about the so-called War on Christmas, which fatuously identifies people who are offended by Happy Holidays signs at department stores with the Christian Martyrs of yore (and for that matter, of today in some parts of the world). Do prophets need vast tax-exempt property holdings? Can they not survive if contributors don’t get to write off what they put in the collection plates on Sunday? Must the dissemination of God’s righteous Word depend on IRS regulations?
I hope those evangelical conservatives who support the Christian Right’s prophetic stance on abortion and the “gay lifestyle” will at least separate themselves from efforts to cheapen that stance by a focus on church budgets.