Monday, October 6, 2008

McIlheran doesn't quite get separation of church and state

Columnist Patrick McIlheran can't seem to wrap his head around the concept of separation of church and state. In his latest opus, he opines that the IRS can penalize and potentially revoke a church's tax exempt status simply because its preacher decides to endorse a specific candidate for public office from the pulpit.

This is in response "Pulpit Freedom Sunday", an event coordinated by the right-wing Alliance Defense Fund wherein 33 pastors gave sermons that explicitly urged parishioners to vote for a specific presidential candidate (mostly McCain), and then sent those sermons to the IRS as a way to openly defy the tax law.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, along with several former IRS officials, have all sent briefs to the IRS urging them to investigate the churches that participated.

McIlheran rambles on about how this shouldn't be an issue at all, because "preachers were utterly free to rail for Lincoln or against Hoover for 178 years, and the nation seemed no more prone to divisiveness then than now. The civil rights movement was born in black churches, many of which have long been bravely, openly political. Pulpit speeches and endorsements from African-American pastors remain a staple of Democratic political campaigns."

What he utterly fails to see is that 1) because it was done in the past, does not mean it should be done now, 2) any preacher that makes an edorsement from the pulpit should be penalized, but endorsing from the pulpit is not the same as endorsing when you're just out and about. Martin Luther King Jr., it's worth noting, never endoresed a specific candidate, but he was still an active and strong force for social and political change.

McIlheran incorrectly and misleadingly asks "since when is it OK in this country for the government to rule there are certain political things certain people simply can’t say?" but that's not what's happening here. Preacher's are free to endorse a candidate so long as their church doesn't enjoy tax emept status. But once they accept the government's break, they are beholden to that one simple rule. Even then, they're free to support whatever political and social positions they so wish--just leave the specific candidates and their campaigns out of it. This seems entirely reasonable to me, and I'm a little baffled as to why the likes of the Alliance Defense Fund and McIlheran don't get it.

Separation of church and state works both ways: it keeps the government out of the pews, and, in theory, the pews out of the government. You can't have it both ways--accepting tax exempt status (the government out of your pockets) while simultaneously demanding to openly and actively meddle with who might run said government.

I hope the IRS does penalize these churches. We need to get back to maintaining some vague sense of balance. Lately it seems like organized religion has spread its fingers deep and wide into governmental affairs, whereas any attempts to back that off are met with allegations of persecution. It's ridiculous, and such ill-informed, published opinions on the matter like McIlheran's don't help at all.

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