My brothers and I, when youngsters, often got into a classic child/parent argument. One of us youngsters would try to stretch the bounds of what we knew was inappropriate behavior with the classic claim, "Well, Billy's mom let's him do it."
You probably know what's coming next, especially if you are parent.
"If Billy's mom let him jump off a cliff, would you, too?" Mom would ask. "Would that make it right?"
End of argument.
This scenario popped into my head while I was perusing my e-mail the other morning, and ran across a press release from gubernatorial candidate Gordon Howie.
He has issued a "Pulpit Challenge," encouraging pastors to exercise their First Amendment right to express themselves politically.
And, naturally, he wants pastors to endorse his candidacy from the pulpit.
According to the release, "Last week, Howie challenged So
uth Dakota churches and their pastors to become more politically active in the stretch run to the June 8 primary election, urging pastors to endorse candidates and advocate specific issues from the pulpit. Reverend H. Wayne Williams, pastor of Liberty Baptist Tabernacle in Rapid City, became one of the first to accept the challenge, adding an official endorsement of Gordon Howie for Governor to a message delivered during his Sunday night services. Williams cites Howie's boldness in issuing such a challenge in defending the free speech rights of clergy as instrumental in gaining his support."
Howie's idea brings up the notion of just what is and what isn't appropriate activity for pastors. I'm not going to dive into some of the legal aspects involved in this. I'm no tax expert, but there does seem to be an issue with churches possibly losing their tax-exempt status under federal law if they start shilling for political candidates.
Howie just seems to laugh it off. To him, it's no problem.
"For too long, our spiritual leaders have been muzzled in the public square by a misconception," Howie said. "Pastors and their congregations have been chained to a code of political silence, bought and paid for by a threat of taxation that does not even exist. Those days are over. As governor, I pledge that South Dakota pastors will always have my protection over their pulpits. All pulpits will be free in our state to preach the full moral council of the Word of God without fear of federal reprisal."
Well gee, Gordo, I've been going to church for a long time, for a variety of reasons. Hearing the word of God. Seeking forgiveness and being reassured of the promise of grace. The fellowship. The music.
Why do you want to ruin it all for me by urging my pastor to turn worship time into a political rally?
I should add, too, that never have any of my pastors needed the protection of the governor's office to do their jobs effectively.
We have our own set of challenges within our church body. We have missions to fulfill, young people to teach, utility bills and salaries to pay and a roof that likely will need to be replaced someday. Little things like that.
I doubt if our church elders would be too happy see our congregation risk losing it tax-exempt status simply so our pastor can endorse your candidacy.
"There is also a spiritual matter at play here," notes my colleague, Kelly Hertz, the editor of the Yankton Press & Dakotan, in an editorial published earlier this week. He writes, "The clergy have a unique relationship with those in their charge: They're held up essentially as spiritual shepherds and, some may argue, conduits between his/her congregation and a Higher Power. If a clergyman uses the pulpit to endorse a candidate that you personally do not support, does that mean you're out of step with that church and its teachings? If you happen to be the candidate your clergy does not support, does this mean you have been judged wrong in the eyes of the individual in whom you seek spiritual guidance? Howie's idea blurs this very sensitive line."
I guess churches and their clergy can become defiant, as Howie suggests. They can snub their noses at the legal ramifications involving tax-exempt status and the First Amendment separation of church and state while at the same time embracing the freedom of expression (and don't forget the right to peaceably assemble).
There may be a lot of Reverend H. Wayne Williamses in churches across South Dakota prairies who see nothing wrong in taking up Howie's cry for politicizing the pulpit.
This Sunday, dozens of South Dakota pastors may follow the gubernatorial candidate's advice, openly approve one or several office seekers over others, and probably experience no immediate legal repercussions for expressing themselves.
Just because Howie argues that pastors can mix religion and political endorsements, however, doesn't make it right.