A month ago, 33 pastors around the country preached sermons that overtly endorsed a candidate (usually John McCain) as part of Pulpit Freedom Sunday and the Pulpit Initiative organized by Alliance Defense Fund, a prominent Christian legal fund. The Pulpit Initiative is designed to challenge a tax law that takes away nonprofit status if a church or other nonprofit organization endorses a political candidate. (Here's a link to an article about the challenge).
My biggest question is why challenge this law, and why now? This is very much an evangelical initiative, but the evangelical churches I'm familiar with rarely if ever talk about the merits or demerits of particular political candidates. When I first heard about the initiative, I wondered if it might designed less to protect white Protestant churches than to force the IRS to investigate black churches, which historically have mixed politics and religion much more freely. But from what I know about the Alliance Defense Fund, I can't imagine this was their motivation.
A fascinating panel at Penn Law School this week debating the initiative shed some light on the motivation. According to Eric Stanley, the Alliance Defense Fund representative, they've gotten a number of letters in recent years from pastors worried about just what constitutes an "endorsement." These concerns have been stoked by groups like People for the American Way, which has sent over l00,000 letters during this election season warning pastors and others that their churches' nonprofit status is in jeopardy if they stray into political waters.
The most moving moment in the panel, in my view, had nothing directly to do with the initiative itself. Fran Pultro, one of the pastors who preached a sermon endorsing John McCain's views on Pulpit Freedom Sunday described his hard scrabble congregation in a tough neighborhood of Philadelphia- their addictions and other struggles, and the hope that many have found in Jesus. I don't agree with Fran about the initiative. I don't think that churches need to be endorsing candidates. But there's no question in my mind that the work he is doing (while also holding a full-time job, because his congregation can't afford a pastor's salary) is the Lord's work.