Thursday, August 2, 2007

Bishops and Politics

I was a political appointee at the Pentagon during the 2000 Presidential race. One reason I had the position was because of my previous political activity, and I love politics. Nonetheless, I (like every appointee in the Department of Defense) played no public role in the 2000 Presidential campaigns. This was painful because I had attended the two previous Democratic National Conventions, and would have loved to do so again in Los Angles.

Yet, I did not. Why? Quite simply, it would have violated a long tradition and well-stated policy--while appointees at HUD or Education can do politics on their own time, appointees in the Department of Defense cannot. It pained me not to participate, but I agreed with the policy and tradition. Those of us at the top of the civilian command of the United States military had to give up politics for the good of the country.

I thought of this when I read in The Lead, that Bishop Robinson had endorsed Barak Obama and had already been called to task for doing so:

Bishop Gene Robinson has publicly endorsed Barack Obama, according to published accounts of a telephone press conference today. On the one hand, Robinson is in the spotlight as a "civil rights leader," but two cautions spring to mind, both issued by the Interfaith Alliance soon after the report of Robinson's endorsement emerged.

. . .

Robinson has never publicly endorsed a candidate for office before, which leads to a question of how appropriate it is for him to do so. In a statement released by the Interfaith Alliance, Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy notes that the waters are muddy, not only because mixing faith and politics so directly can jeopardize a religious organization's protected tax status.

Read it all here.

The Interfaith Alliance network release includes the following statement of concern:

I encourage candidates to talk about the proper role of religion in public life, and I strongly defend the right of religious leaders to speak out about the important issues we are facing in the world today. However, when candidates turn religious leaders into political tools, they have crossed a line.

This is a dangerous road religious leaders are being led down. I caution them to be careful how far they go.

So what do I think? I have no doubt that the First Amendment fully protects the political activity of clergy in their personal capacities, and the concern for tax exempt status is largely a red herring. Nonetheless, I think that the better course of action for clergy is to follow the rule I followed when I was in the Pentagon. For the good of the Church they serve, they should not engage in such political activity.

I realize that many members of the clergy that I deeply respect have endorsed Obama or other candidates, but I am concerned that such an endorsement can hurt the mission of the church. Given the special relationship of a priest or minister with a congregation, I suspect that in most cases a endorsement of a particular political leader will be a divisive step. I am also concerned that such a direct involvement in politics removes the prophetic power of religious leaders.

I think it is up to each particular member of the clergy to weigh whether their political activity will indeed harm their church. In some cases it will not. But, I find it very difficult to believe that any Bishop's endorsement would not cause harm to the Diocese and the larger church.


Anonymous said...

Tax exempt organizations need to be careful not to advocate or lobby for specific individuals or legislation in order to keep their tax exempt status.
That is why groups set up non tax exempt arms that do that task. A contribution to such an organization cannot be claimed as a deduction on your tax return.

Alice MacArthur

Martin said...

Chuck, I agree with your assessment here, and I think Gene Robinson made a mistake in throwing support behind Obama in a public way.

Of course, politics goes pretty far beyond just endorsing candidates or supporting a specific partisan ideology. And this is where I have a lot of disagreement with many denominations in the church, including the Episcopal Church.

Everyone rightly expects the church to weigh in on issues of morality and justice, but I think a line is crossed when it decides to advocate for a particular course of action on how to address those issues.

For example, on the issue of illegal immigration, I know many clergy leadership have spoken out in favor of specific immigration reform bills. I've also heard clergy support hate crimes bills, transportation propositions, bond issues, and many others.

It's much better for our leadership to sketch out some thoughtful and reasonable road maps to making good moral and social choices rather than advocating for particular policies or laws.