This Sunday a number of pastors will observe Pulpit Freedom Sunday, including our own Jim Garlow of Skyline Wesleyan Church. Here he is on the Stephen Colbert report this week:
The idea is to protest the 1954 law that says that if you are to keep your tax exempt status with the IRS as a church, you can not officially endorse a candidate. The idea was not to take away the freedom of religion to endorse a candidate, but to insist that if you are receiving tax exempt status, you should not lobby for a political candidate (by the way, none of the freedoms of the Constitution are absolute... terrorists can't express their freedom of religion by blowing up stuff). The churches involved in Pulpit Freedom Sunday are wanting the IRS to try to remove their tax exempt status so that they can take it to court and settle the issue once and for all.
Now I don't know if Jim's right on the argument. He may be right. Colbert's certainly right that he has some, shall we say, stern stuff to poke the hornet's nest. My point in posting this is not to argue over whether they are right on the principle. It's to argue that it's not a good idea to endorse a candidate from the pulpit in general.
In fact, it would be appropriate for a church like the Wesleyan Church to officially recommend to its pastors not to be too obvious from the pulpit who you as pastor will vote for and not to let individuals in the congregation use the church to lobby in a way that seems to give them the official sanction of the church. Now it would be one thing if Hitler were running for President. Then you should certainly take a stand, assuming you knew what he was doing. Similarly, I think it is appropriate to raise moral questions about various values expressed in the public sphere. There is a time to speak the truth and be willing to go to jail or die for it.
But there are at least two reasons not to go too far politically in the pulpit:
1. The Christian choice may not be as clear as you think it is.
Some might respond to my paragraph above with something like, "Obama/Romney is pretty much on the level of Hitler." I doubt God agrees. There will be respected Wesleyan leaders who vote for Romney and think the choice as a Christian is pretty clear, and there will be respected Wesleyan leaders who vote for Obama and think the choice as a Christian is pretty clear. The former might mention things like abortion and stealing; the latter might mention things like the poor and equality.
But that is just background to the main reason:
2. If you too overtly play to one side of the political spectrum, you effectively expel half of those to whom God calls you to minister.
Would a Christian Democrat feel comfortable attending your church? Would a Christian Republican feel comfortable attending your church? It goes both ways. There are pastors who would do more than raise questions from the pulpit about the Iraq War, and there are pastors who would do more than raise questions about "redistributing the wealth" from the pulpit.
Frankly, even if you are convinced that the other side is Hitler, why would you present your understanding in a way that would drive Democrat/Republican "sinners" away? Don't you want to lead them to Christ? Hitting them over the head with a hammer of condemnation for being morally stupid probably is not a very effective evangelistic tool.
I still think that Richard Mouw is far more right than wrong. In general, Christians should stick more to underlying values and principles than to endorsing/condemning specific legislation or candidates. It's not an absolute rule, just a good idea most of the time. The Wesleyan Church has at times gone further. Our leaders endorsed the DREAM Act and the most recent General Conference, while stopping short of talking about specific legislation, clearly took a stand against gay marriage. But I'm glad that, even on the last issue, the General Board wisely took out specific references to Obama and specific legislation that had initially come out of the proposal from its sponsoring district.
So I don't know if the law is constitutional or not, but it's usually a good idea not to endorse a candidate anyway.