Sermon 9/18/16 Politics, Principles & the Pulpit
Samuel Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain, who was famous for his scathing commentary on do-nothing officials and the media of his time, once said, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.” I wonder how old Sam would react to our current combustible political climate and the media circus that gave birth to it, feeds it, and encourages it to grow. Everyone has a right to their opinion, and thanks to the internet, everyone’s opinions are out there. Journalists are supposed to report facts, that’s what I was taught anyhow. But facts and opinions too often melt into one big media nightmare, and “journalism” has become a rather loose term, no longer dependent on facts, and anyone with a blog and a bone to pick can call themselves a journalist.
I admit to being a political junky. Like any addict, it’s the first thing I do in the morning- check my newsfeed on my phone-and I have to get a fix every few hours, to make sure I don’t miss anything. I don’t watch television, thank goodness, because I might never get anything done, but I do read news from a slew of sources, follow a bunch of blogs, and I usually have public radio playing in the background. Because our media has been sort of split down the middle, liberal sources versus conservative sources, I’m sure that there are many people out there who was say I was totally uninformed, despite all the information that I devour. I might say the same about them.
It all comes down to our sources, right? Our sources, the ones we choose to expose ourselves to, are the ideas that shape our opinions about current events, and even about history. And the Truth that we glean from our multitude of sources doesn’t always have that clean line around it that makes us believe what is being reported. Several years ago late night talk show host Stephen Colbert coined the term “Truthiness,” which is a truth that isn’t necessarily based on facts, but, instead, feels true, which is good enough for most people.
This election cycle has been chock full of “truthiness;” in fact, the bar of truth has been lowered right to the floor to the point where whatever nonsense comes out of either candidate’s mouth is being reported as if it were a fact. Frankly, it’s maddening. The whole thing. It makes me crazy. Nonetheless I find it very hard to look away. About a month ago I started to think about how this election might be effecting all of you, and it struck me that I had some responsibility to give you some spiritual comfort here, a respite from the anxiety of wondering which direction our country is going. But I also realized that pretending for an hour once a week that none of the craziness is happening, not facing the issues and the anxiety, doesn’t do you any favors either. A balance must be struck, and I’m hoping we can do this work together.
The theme I want to focus on this year is “Issues and Ethics,” or, in UU-speak it might be better to say “Problems and Principles.” Once a month I’m going to tackle an issue, and I’d like your input on what issues concern you the most. We’ll look at how it affects us in the service, and then we’ll have a discussion after church, at 12:30 in the Green Room, starting today for any of you who’d like to hang around and talk about politics and the pulpit. I want to create a safe and supportive place, where no one will give you headaches for your opinions, and I’m hoping we can have some good, meaty, reasonable conversations about the issues we all face. I think this is a healthy thing to do.
But these first couple of months here hold a special kind of anxiety about our upcoming election. There’s been lots of discussion in the news lately about politics and the pulpit, and that’s what I want to address here specifically. Lots of people think that there’s no room in the pulpit for politics. And when it comes to endorsing candidates from the pulpit, I think they’re absolutely right. Our laws prohibit it, in fact. But politics is a big, broad term and it encompasses all these issues we’re concerned with. The early Quakers on this landscape who rebelled against violence, slavery, and religious persecution, were certainly taking a political viewpoint on the issues of their time. The social justice causes we support now, and have supported for generations as a liberal church, are also political. There’s no avoiding it. But we, like our Quaker friends, react to the issues of the day according to our principles, based on spiritual sources, and common ethical guideposts.
So how do we approach this? First, let me give you the facts, not “truthiness” on what the law says about churches and how political they can be, legally. And this might surprise you. Guess who put the idea out there that churches had to keep politics completely out of the pulpit? It was us. Liberals, I mean (and I may be making some large assumptions about y’all, but you’re probably pretty liberal if you’re here right now). Remember Newt Gingrich and the rise of the religious right, and “family values?” Churches started to have a lot more power in the political realm, white evangelical churches especially. And liberals cried foul on how political some churches were becoming and the influence they were having on elections. We’re supposed to have separation of church and state, right?
Well, yes…and no. By not taxing churches, the government is prevented from directly interfering with how those churches operate. By the same token, those churches are also prevented from directly interfering with how the government operates…they can’t endorse any political candidates, they can’t campaign on behalf of any candidates, and they can’t attack any political candidate such that they effectively endorse that person’s opponent. So, I can’t get up here and tell you who I think you should vote for or not vote for. As a minister, however, there is nothing to prevent me from endorsing, or even campaigning for, any candidate I like personally, and making it known outside of the church. Being a pastor, congregation member, or a church doesn’t negate our First Amendment rights.
What churches can do politically is pretty broad. We can invite political candidates to speak as long as we don’t explicitly endorse them and they aren’t endorsing other candidates. We recently had Elizabeth Warren here, and we filled this sanctuary to capacity. It was wonderful. But in my first phone call with her staff I asked many questions to make quite sure that this would not be a stump speech for the Democratic candidate. She assured me that Senator Warren wanted to talk about income inequality, and that’s something that our principles support, so we were on safe ground.
Churches can hold voter registrations, hand out material about election questions, hold political debates, as long as both sides are represented, even give money to lobbyists, though it can’t exceed 5% of the budget. They can speak out about a wide variety of political and moral issues, including very controversial matters like abortion and euthanasia, war and peace, poverty and civil rights.
Commentary on such issues can appear in church bulletins or newsletters, in purchased advertisements, in news conferences, in sermons, and wherever else the church or church leaders would like their message to be transmitted. What matters is that such comments are limited to the issues and not where specific candidates and politicians stand on those issues.
It’s a very fine line of course, because we’re not idiots. We are well aware of which candidates support the issues that we’re concerned with as Unitarians, so…aren’t we indirectly supporting a candidate when we talk about LGBT rights, or social justice, or Black Lives Matter? No. Our UU principles inform our values, and discussing issues that have an effect on our lives, physically, intellectually, and spiritually, is exactly why we’re here. We’re supposed to reflect on what moves us. We’re supposed to be passionate about our beliefs. We’re supposed to wrestle with our conscience. That’s what all churches do and it doesn’t have to be an election year for those things to matter.
Now, considering how much we hear about politics in the pulpit and claims about churches going overboard, you would think that churches lose their non-profit status all the time, right? Well, there have been some watchdog groups formed over the past few years to try and monitor political speech in churches, but apparently the IRS has a very small staff for auditing and investigating claims, and a church losing its 501c3 status is pretty rare. In 2014, over 1600 pastors made election speeches and sent tapes of them to the IRS more or less daring them to do something about it. The IRS response was underwhelming at best and sparked a lawsuit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which was withdrawn after the IRS somehow convinced them that it would do something about it. Little has happened, however. It’s kind of surprising, one would think the IRS would want to milk the sacred cash cow if and when it could, it’s a pretty privileged status that saves us a lot of money. But between a lack of IRS staff, a First Amendment that gives us a rather broad freedom of speech and religion, and a political climate where taking away a church’s tax status might cause cries of “religious persecution,” I can see why the headlines don’t read “Another Political Church Made to Pay Taxes.”
So, this year, we’ll tackle some issues, tell stories that move us, and discuss our passions and our concerns, as always, and we’ll keep the candidates out of this sanctuary. But there will be no avoiding the bombardment of presidential politics for the next 50 days. As we count those days down, I know my own election anxieties will grow, as I’m sure yours will. I know sometimes you’ll want to scream (I recommend going to West Island or a similar beach and finding a lonely spot where your screams can be absorbed and no one will call the police). We know how frustrated the candidates and the media will make us and how relationships will be affected because of who supports whom. But this is our sanctuary, a welcoming place for all people and all opinions, and god knows we have some strong opinions.
Remember that we are in a safe place of beloved community here, where we can talk about issues reasonably, without screaming at each other. And I hope that we can have some meaty, thoughtful discussions this year, and challenge each other’s thinking without judgment, falling back on agreeing to disagree instead of the vitriol many of us are exposed to on social media.
There’s high emotions flowing everywhere in our country. And on Sundays, lots of us come to church for peace. I think that peace and passion can sit comfortably side by side, as you sit side by side now. The peace comes from facing our deepest concerns together, listening to each other, singing together, and feeling like we’re part of a community that cares.