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Jewish World Review Oct. 21, 2002 / 15 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

David Limbaugh

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Muzzling conservative religious leaders


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | I know some of you out there actually harbor this fantasy that Christian conservatives want to subsume the government and convert it into a happy theocracy for Jesus, but you're wrong.

Because of your illusion you are growing ever bolder in your efforts to deny Christians their freedoms of religion and expression -- both of which freedoms, you should note, also remain firmly in the First Amendment, along with the sacred Establishment Clause.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm all for the Establishment Clause, but I'm sickened by the courts', politicians' and our post-modern culture's distortions of its meaning. The provision was inserted into the First Amendment to augment and strengthen, not emasculate the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause -- as I've observed before. But today, in the name of safeguarding our religious freedoms, government and society are smothering them.

So, it's no surprise that on Wednesday, Congress handily rejected (178-239) the Houses of Worship Political Speech Act (H.R. 2357), which was designed to remove the authority of the Internal Revenue Service to revoke a church's tax-exempt status for engaging in "partisan" political activity.

You might find it distasteful for pastors to share their political opinions from their pulpits (and elsewhere), but that doesn't mean the Establishment Clause precludes it. How could the issuance of a pastor's political opinion -- even a pastor whose church enjoys tax-exempt status -- lead to the establishment of a national religion? You couldn't construct a slippery slope scenario under which this is remotely conceivable.

Let's consider a hypothetical. Assume the pastors to which these restrictions apply are mostly conservative Christian ones -- probably a safe assumption. Further assume that some of them really get after it, telling their congregations that a vote for Democrats is a vote for Satan. (No offense to Satan intended here.) Just kidding!

Finally, assume that the unthinking, mind-numbed congregation marches in lockstep to the voting booths and ushers in a new era of bliss (Republicans dominate both branches and appoint the third). How could this ever lead to a national religion?

The pastors, under the feared scenario, are not even talking about religion -- they're talking about politics. How can their advocacy of political positions or candidates be taken to be advocacy, much less the establishment, of a national religion?

But even if they were advocating a full-blown Christian theocracy, so what? That would make them wrong, politically and theologically, in my opinion, but not subject to censorship.

Nor is it relevant that churches are indirectly connected to the federal government through their tax-exempt status. They have absolutely no governmental power. They could not "establish" their religion, even if they were foolish enough to want to. Ever. It's ludicrous to suggest they could. They are merely advocating things -- not decreeing them. Pastors with differing opinions should be free to advocate the opposite things -- and they do, by the way, mostly with impunity (a former IRS commissioner recently admitted to selective enforcement during the Clinton years).

In the meantime, under these false pretenses, pastors, whose business is to lead on moral issues, are precluded from doing so to the extent they are muzzled on politics, because government and politics have an enormous impact on the moral fabric of our society. That is, if you silence a pastor on political issues, you are limiting his ability to influence society morally -- as well as his freedom of expression and religion.

Shouldn't a pastor, for instance, have a right to speak out against same sex marriages, gay adoption or polygamy? Well, those issues are hot in many political races these days, such as in the Massachusetts, Florida and Arizona gubernatorial races, respectively. Would pastors in those states (note we're not even talking about the federal government here) be subject to IRS condemnation for promoting traditional values -- because the IRS would deem it disguised partisan campaigning?

But what if the pastors actually endorsed the candidates opposing those measures? So what? Their tenuous connection to the government (tax-exempt status) invests them with no power to establish their religion.

Quit mindlessly falling for the nonsensical conventional wisdom on these issues. Partisan pastors don't threaten our religious liberties, but rogue IRS agents do.

The practical effect of allowing this infernal law to stand is that unelected government bureaucrats will continue to have arbitrary power over the free speech and free exercise rights of our churches. If you don't like campaigning pastors, your remedy is to leave the church, not to gag it.

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David Limbaugh, a columnist and attorney practicing in Cape Girardeau, Mo., is the author of the just-released exposť about corruption in the Clinton-Reno Justice Department, "Absolute Power." Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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