Religion and politics has become a hot button topic these days.
Roman Catholic Archbishop John Meyers has said that members of his church who are pro gay marriage should not receive the Eucharist.
For the past five years a group of conservative pastors have observed what they call Pulpit Freedom Sunday. Each year there is a lot of discussion about the propriety of the day and of churches making political endorsements. It is scheduled for this Sunday.
First let me come clean. I believe in absolute freedom of religion. The State has no right to dictate what a religious group can say or believe or constrain the way that faith lives itself out unless it is a danger to the general public. I also believe in freedom from religion as a necessary corollary to absolute freedom of religion. If individuals are not able to escape the influences of faith, they cannot freely choose. Public policy is therefore never to be based on religious doctrines. Freedom of religion is clearly an important issue in the two situations raised above.
A Roman Catholic archbishop can restrict who receives the Eucharist based on his understanding of Roman Catholic teaching. If he deems that advocating gay marriage is a sin, and that sin precludes one from the Lord's table, he can do that. The Roman Catholic church is not a democracy and it is irrelevant whether the majority of members agree or not or even if the teaching has no credible basis in scripture. He is the bishop and he speaks for the church (I know that is a slight over simplification). There is a set body of doctrine and practice, set by the church, which members are obligated to hold and observe. Now, if he is misinterpreting the church's teaching, that is for those above him in the hierarchy to say, not the members, not the US government, and certainly not those outside of the Roman Catholic Church. If an individual disagrees, he or she can leave that communion.
I also agree with the founders of Pulpit Freedom Sunday that the state has no right to control anything said from the pulpit. Part of the issue of freedom of religion is precisely that, that the government has no right to dictate what a religious group can or cannot say. Indeed, for many of the early framers of freedom of religion, a significant part of the equation was the ability of the Church to judge the State. How could they do that if they were not allowed to speak on political issues? If you look at the history of political speech in churches, it was not against IRS rules until the time of LBJ. Before then, pastors often spoke on political issues and no doubt, endorsed candidates at times.
Many folk misunderstand the way the tax code impacts separation of church and state. They often believe that religious organizations receive their tax exemption because they are like other charities that receive special tax status because they provide some community good. While I would argue that religious groups do a tremendous amount of good in our society, that is not why they receive tax exempt status. They receive tax exempt status solely because they are religious groups. The Supreme Court said in 1819 that the power to tax is the power to destroy, and the State has no grounds for any type of control over any religious group... therefore no taxation.
Some see the tax exempt status as a government subsidy to religion. The argument goes that because religious organizations do not pay taxes but do receive the benefits of government services, that equals a subsidy. The argument itself is not all that strong, but even if accurate, it does not matter. The Constitution precludes the establishment of religion and as was said above, the ability to tax is the ability to destroy... thereby interfering with religious freedom.
Now, I would not dare endorse a candidate from my pulpit (even though anyone who knows me could make a pretty accurate guess who I'll be voting for). I believe that God calls each of us to weigh the questions and make a decision. I believe there are some views that are clearly mo but that reflects my theology, not everyones'. Some religious groups have very well defined beliefs and extremely narrow options for disagreement. Freedom of religion requires that they be allowed to speak their religious beliefs from their pulpits.
Two other issues that have been raised a lot lately are not so clear - payment for contraception by medical insurance paid for by Roman Catholic institutions and the issue of abortion and public funds. The Catholic institutions in question are involved in matters not quite so clearly religious in nature such as hospitals, hire individuals who are not Roman Catholic, and serve in ways that are not quite clearly religious. I think the solution given by the Obama administration is an inelegant but workable solution.
As for abortions, public funds are not eligible to be used to pay for elective abortions anyway so the question is moot. It does raise a sticky point for me. What about taxes that are used to pay for things clearly in violation of a group's religious principles? If public funds were used to pay for elective abortions, should Roman Catholics or members of some evangelical groups be allowed to withhold a portion of their taxes because the funds are being used in ways that conflict with their faith? How about tax dollars that fund the military or capital punishment, both of which have been forbidden in Anabaptist doctrine for centuries? Should Anabaptists be allowed to withhold the percentage of their taxes that go to fund the military?