The Ten Commandments for Mixing Religion and Politics

By Barry W. Lynn

Religiously charged rhetoric has roiled Campaign 2000 on more than one occasion during this election season. We have seen a certain amount of "God talk" in every election year, of course. After all, most candidates want to be portrayed as men and women of faith since they know that resonates with the voters. But this year the issue keeps reasserting itself.

Some voters, however, dislike this trend. And some national organizations have called on the candidates to step back and assess they way they are using religion in this campaign. Politics is often a no-holds-barred business, and that may be why so many Americans find it distasteful when religion is dragged into the middle of that.

Linking religion and politics also presents certain legal risks for churches. Recently the Rev. Floyd Flake of the AME Zion Church in Queens met with IRS agents and agreed to sign a statement saying he would no longer endorse candidates from the pulpit after the media reported that he called on church members to back Vice President Al Gore. In Binghamton, N.Y., the Church at Pierce Creek in 1995 became the first house of worship in history to lose its tax-exempt status after the IRS determined it had violated federal tax law by buying a full-page ad in USA Today urging people to vote against Bill Clinton in 1992. (Exactly where this tiny congregation got the money for this expensive ad remains a mystery.)

To protect both religion and politics during this election season, we need some ground rules--a type of "Ten Commandments for Religion and Politics." Without them, our campaigns will continue to look like holy wars. Religion and politics are simply too combustible to be mixed in a reckless manner. Candidates, religious leaders, and voters should consider adopting the following ground rules:

One: No one can claim to speak for God. No person or group should claim to have the only "Christian" position on a certain issue. God is not a Democrat or a Republican. People of faith can and do taking varying positions on the issues of the day.

Two: Attacks on a candidate's piety are out of bounds. No person knows what is in another's heart. In the United States, we have nothing like a religious test for public office. You do not have to be a Christian to hold public office. You have the right to belong to whatever religion you choose or even belong to no denomination.

Three: Houses of worship cannot legally intervene in partisan politics, and politicians should have the decency not to ask them to. Federal tax law forbids all non-profit organizations, which includes virtually every church in America, from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. Churches have no business distributing campaign fliers for certain candidates or allowing office-seekers to shill for votes from the pulpit. Without these rules, houses of worship could quickly become conduits to launder cash and resources to candidates--the last thing our already money-soaked political system needs.

Four: Opposition to a religious group's political agenda is not the same as being anti-religion. It is possible to oppose the Catholic bishops' stand on abortion and not be anti-Catholic; people who oppose the Christian Coalition's political agenda are not bigots who hate fundamentalist Christianity. When religious groups enter the fray and take stands on controversial issues, they should expect opposition. They don't get a free pass just because they are religious.

Five: The Bible is not the Constitution. One may believe that a specific interpretation of the scriptures is true and that others are wrong. That belief does not give the right to use the government to impose that understanding of the Bible onto others. Our Constitution is a secular document that does not take sides on theological matters. The Constitution does not even mention God, let alone Christianity. As such, all religions are equal in the eyes of the law, and none has the right to expect that its particular sectarian doctrines will be promulgated by the government.

Six: Religious involvement in politics ought to lift up the process, not take it down into the gutter. We tolerate too much dirty politics and dirty tricks from politicians already. We should not tolerate them from religious groups. We have a right to expect religion to take the high road.

Seven: For groups that proclaim to be Christian, a simple question should guide their activities: "What would Jesus do?" W.W.J.D. bracelets and shirts are all the rage among evangelicals these days. Christian groups should apply that principle to their political activities as well. Would Jesus put out biased voter guides? Would he place a full-page ad in USA Today advising people that voting for Bill Clinton is a sin? Would Christ produce a video accusing his political enemies of wild charges without offering any proof? He would not, yet groups calling themselves "Christian" have done all of these things in recent years.

Eight: Inaccurate and biased "voter guides" that obviously favor certain candidates over others should be banned from houses of worship. The Christian Coalition specializes in these types of guides. No church in America should distribute this type of material. It's not only a violation of the law, it's unethical to boot. It's not asking too much to expect churches to refrain from distributing material that lies about someone's record.

Nine: Church involvement in politics in legal ways should be encouraged. Houses of worship can register voters, arrange to transport people to the polls, encourage voting as a civic duty and so on. They can host a "meet the candidates" night where all candidates are invited to speak or debate. They can take stands on ballot referenda. Religious Right groups often say that federal tax law gags churches when it comes to politics, but in fact there are many activities houses of worship can undertake that do not present legal difficulties.

Ten: The federal laws governing political activity by churches are for all houses of worship--conservative and liberal churches, heavily white and mostly African-American churches, Christian denominations and non-Christian. We cannot have one standard for conservative churches and another one for liberal churches. One occasionally hears the argument that endorsing candidates from the pulpit is a traditional practice in many black churches. That may be the case, but it's time that tradition ended because it's unlawful. All churches, regardless of their political leanings or racial make-up, should abide by federal tax law.

Religion and politics will always interact. That interaction can uplift our democratic process--or tear it down. That interaction can preserve the independence and integrity of religion--or compromise it. Adoption of some commonsense guidelines, by houses of worship and politicians alike, would give our nation a lot of the former and, if we're lucky, none of the latter.

Barry W. Lynn, an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Read Seth Forman's Article, "A Religion, and a Politics, for Our Time"

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