Monday, May 14, 2007

Monday Question of the Week . . . Church and State

This past Saturday was Election Day here is the Lone Star State. This weekend as I was driving around I saw several churches, non Presbyterian and most with a direct view of the highway, that had hundreds of signs for politicians on their property and there was something about this that disturbed me. What do you think about churches posting signs for specific politicians on their property? Separations of church and state? Speaking truth to power?


Stushie said...

I'm reminded about what Archbishop Tutu said when asked about the supposed separation of church and state. He simply replied: "What Bible have you been reading?"

Quotidian Grace said...

I serve as an election official in Texas.

The signs just mean that the precinct in which the church is located is holding the election in the church's building.

The election law permits the candidates to place signs at the polling places on election day so long as they are placed a certain distance away from the poll. The law also requires the candidates to remove the signs within a couple of hours of the poll closing.

I've conducted elections at a church in our precinct--in this case it was a Church of Christ.

The church did not have anything to do with placing the signs. It just agreed to host the election. In heavily residential precincts churches and schools are often places where elections are held because there are no public buildings within the boundary of the precinct.

Jon said...

Sounds like examples of citizens practicing their constitutional rights of free speech.

Stuart Gordon said...

Are there not tax-exemption issues to consider? The IRS has prosecuted some cases against churches for actions it deemed partisan; I recall one of an Episcopal Church in California. (That case was covered as an example of IRS bullying.)

QG, can you help on this?

Stushie said...

The Episcopalian church was charged because the pastor preached a highly political sermon from the pulpit and someone local complained.

I think he was well within his rights - there are no off limits in preaching - if there are, then the government is imposing its will upon the congregation.

Ye olde name & stuff said...

As long as there are no signs promoting the SF Giants I am cool with it.

If the congregation initiates the representation I am cool with that as well. I am bothered by any specific power (be it a pastor, elder, of financier) bullying anyone into support.
I believe that we have tanken the separation of churh and state way to far...we are garunteed the right not to have a state sponsored religion. The state is run by people and those people are religious. It is not prudent to expect that the religion will be removed from representatives. Think about that prior to casting your vote to elect representatives.

Can truth be spoken to power by finite creatures?

Ryan Pappan said...

The question is posed to us on Church & State on the day prior to Rev. Falwell's passing. I wonder what everyone thinks about the interaction of "church" & "state" as practiced by Rev. Falwell.

John Shuck said...

I think the solution is fairly straightforward. Churches get a free ride. They use all the services of a community and do not pay any taxes. Churches are more like businesses. Let us as church folks be the first to advocate for removing churches from tax-exempt status. Then, churches can be as political as they want.

Quotidian Grace said...


The issue of tax exemption comes up when a church (or 501-c-3 non profit organization) take a partisan position for or against a candidate or a proposition on the ballot.

Since all the candidates in the election that is being held at the church building can put their signs outside in the permitted areas, there is no issue of partisanship in that case.

Stuart Gordon said...

While I certainly appreciate John's interest in churches claiming exemption from tax exemption, I do not share his desire to freely advocate for candidates. That is a recipe for a red church-blue church division more heated than the one we have now.

If Christ is our peace, having broken down the dividing wall between us; if there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female; if rich and poor alike are welcome in the household of God; then I shudder at the thought of a partisan church that shows the door to all Christians not holding the same views as the pastor on the issues of the day.

In my mind, there is a difference between faithfulness to the Gospel and advocacy for particular candidates and parties. In my mind, the church should speak the truth as it understands it, but it should understand that both parties have only a partial grasp on the truth. Both parties need each other. Neither party should be favored. If we can't worship together as Republicans and Democrats, truly united, then the Gospel we are proclaiming is truncated indeed.

Keep serving as polling places. Allow signs from all candidates. But do not become the endorser and campaigner for favored candidates. That would allow the gospel to become captive to the politics of the day.

Jodie said...

John Schuck makes a good point.

Separation of Church and State means the State can't impose a religion. But it does not mean the church cannot make demands of the State. It can and it should. Specially in a democracy where the State is an agent of the members of the church in any case (as well as everyone else)

The tax exemption status of the church is used by the State to keep the church tame. Every year the IRS picks a hand full of churches to go after as examples to remind the rest of us that if we get out of line, it will cost us money. The theory being that if you can grab the church by its pocket book, its heart and mind will follow.

I think the Church should give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.


John Shuck said...

Thanks Jodie,

That is my point exactly.

Plus the point that churches should pay their fair share to the communities that support them.

Stushie said...

Most churches are full of people who do give to the community - most are law-abiding, tax paying, community building, and compassionate carers. In fact, if we were to take church people out of the community, I just wonder how much of a community would we have left?

Presbyman said...

There are many churches in my Presbytery (and many other Presbyteries, without a doubt) that can barely keep their doors open as it is. What would it do to a church to saddle them with property taxes?? And what would it do to the people of the community to have their beloved local churches closed because of their tax problem?

Jodie said...


People put their money where there hearts lie. If the only way they will go to church is by government subsidy, then maybe it's time for some pruning.

Presbyman said...

Jodie wrote:

People put their money where there hearts lie. If the only way they will go to church is by government subsidy, then maybe it's time for some pruning.

Uh, it's not a question of whether people "go to church" by "government subsidy," but whether a church can keep its doors open if saddled with property taxes. In a church with wealthy parishioners, that might not be a problem. But in many of the communities in western Pennsylvania, it WOULD be a problem. Seems to me that churches are important enough to keep open even in less well off communities. These congregations HELP local people by providing such things as food banks and family benevolences.

Your Social Darwinist attitude ("time to do some pruning") is inappropriate for anyone who claims to follow Jesus Christ. I moderate the session of a very small and poor church (in addition to pastoring my larger, more stable church). I have to say you have one hell of a nerve calling for "pruning." This little church does a lot of good in a mostly rural and not very well off community. It may be that such small churches will have to close eventually for demographic reasons, but let's not have the government in the business of shooting them through the heart.

As a country, we need to encourage MORE faith-based ministry, not close down churches by applying taxation where taxation has never been applied before.

I regret some of my tone, but for heaven's sake what are you thinking, writing about churches the way you do???

John Shuck said...

Whoa Presbyman,

Pretty intense. Jodie has made an important point. I agree with her. It is not social darwinism. Churches get a free ride. Many organizations such as corporations do good things for their communities and they pay taxes.

The church is a corporation. Where I live some of the hugest buildings around are churches. My argument is not whether they do some good or not, but whether they take more than they give.

They create a burden on communities and the federal government. In my state churches neither have to pay property or sales tax. They also get tax benefits by allowing income to be counted as a charitable contribution. Clergy also get a housing tax break.

And...they are political. I see signs for mostly conservative political positions on church sign boards. And of course, those lovely "voter guides" that come out just in time for elections.

I am not against that. But they should pay their share. Agree or disagree, I think this is a conversation that is worth having.

Presbyman said...


jodie said...


You've taken me out of context. I was not thinking so much about Social Darwinism as I was thinking of the words of Jesus in the Gospel:

John 15:2

"Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit."


Stuart Gordon said...

John and Jodie:

This is a comment easy enough that it borders on cheap: have you made these moves yourselves, and have your Sessions? Have you renounced the exemption of taxes on income related to housing? Has your Session petitioned to be taxed?

If you do, how has it emboldened your witness? And if you haven't yet, how has it weakened your witness?

John Shuck said...


I don't think I have made a witness. I have expressed an opinion, one that is shared by others. It is conversation that is all.

Jodie said...


Are you kidding? The only time I know of where a pastor suggested such a move in the articles of incorporation for the new church he was starting they looked at him like he was nuts.

As far as limiting our witness, the topic comes up often enough that I think it does. I can think of many actual and potential criteria for choosing courses of action, reasons for gathering, and topics of sermons or classes, but when our tax status becomes the overriding criteria, or even one of them then I would say it is limiting our witness.

I have no delusion that this discussion is anything more than just testing the waters and somewhat ahead of its time. But I agree with those who say our democracy is in crisis today, some would say due to our lack of participation (“our” meaning “the public”) others due to our lost moral compass in matters of civics. Maybe both are true. Maybe there are other reasons as well.

Either way, the church could very well provide a coalescing point for our nation to find its way back to a more sensible place, just like it did when we started. It is ludicrous to think the church should stay out of politics. To the contrary, it should lead by example. After all the word “ecclesia” comes first from the assembly of Athenian citizens practicing democracy. But for the church to be effective and unbiased, it needs to be like the early missionary priests who took vows of poverty and chastity to free themselves of earthly distractions that might compromise their commitment to the Gospel. In order to help the State we must not be in its debt. Sooner or later this is going to become a point of contention.


Stushie said...

Jodie said, "But for the church to be effective and unbiased, it needs to be like the early missionary priests who took vows of poverty and chastity to free themselves of earthly distractions that might compromise their commitment to the Gospel."

They were also unmarried, celibate, and male. Are you advocating those things, too?

As for being not for profit status - don't we use the benefits we gain for mission and ministries to the community?

And any minister who feels that they are getting an unjust tax break with regard to a housing allowance - put your money where your mouth is - don't include it in your tax return - or are we just speaking hypothetically and hypocritically here?

Stuart Gordon said...


"It needs to be like the early missionary priests who took vows of poverty and chastity to free themselves of earthly distractions that might compromise their commitment to the Gospel."

I disagree, strongly. The Protestant Reformation offered us the doctrine of the priesthood of believers, and proposed that the world is our monastery. Not even a monk is fully free of earthly distractions. Not even a monk is without compromise. All of us, in every context of fleshly existence, live in the world.

We are the people God has chosen to be witnesses to the world. We do so as compromised people. There is no vow we can take that will clean up our lives sufficiently. There is no practice we can adopt that will purify ourselves. We are called to live out our Christian vocations in the world, as sinful-yet-justified people.

I did not suggest the "ludicrous" notion that the church should stay out of politics. I said the church should not endorse candidates. One can be very active in politics without endorsing a party or a candidate.

What purpose do political endorsements play? They give the endorser the role of power broker. If you want a good example of what happens when the church does that, look at James Dobson, the American demagogue. He dishonors the faith by acting as the Bishop of Colorado Springs, announcing absolution on his radio show for the penitent Newt Gringrich. He receives the genuflections of Catholic judges who become justices because of his support. He compromises the GOSPEL because of his partisan politics. I'm not interested in trying to perfect myself for the purpose of political witness; I'm interested in making my imperfect witness without compromising the gospel.

As for me, no thank you to political endorsements.

John Shuck said...


I personally agree on endorsements for a particular candidate--although, I can imagine that some candidates have a closer vision to justice and peace than others. Yet, I do think churches should advocate for particular legislation. Churches should bear witness as to their conscience. It is a bit harder to speak prophetically for kingdom values when Casear holds control over you (ie. threats against tax-exempt status).

John Shuck said...


Check the most recent post on my blog. Join me?

Stushie said...

Intriguing, John, but I'll pass. I don't have any problems with not for profit and the housing allowance.

Jodie said...


I really agree with everything you said.

I wasn't literally saying we should all become medieval monks. I was talking about levels of commitment. I am saying that nothing should be allowed to encumber the Prophetic Voice of the church. I also think that endorsing candidates in the prophetic voice is probably an oxymoron. You might as well try to claim that God roots for the Cardinals. But if certain influential voices are free to endorse certain candidates in the name of God then our pastors should at least feel free to refute and un-endorse them. Today they are not. Your case in point is perfect. It would be very hard to refute from the pulpit a candidate that Dobson has endorsed without somebody bringing up the tax threat.

The point is that at least in part for fear of the tax man none of this discourse is really taking place at all, and we are the weaker for it. Americans of all people should be well versed in the art of democracy, and yet we are probably the most na├»ve and illiterate democracy alive today. It is this illiteracy that the church could help with, but the fear of the tax man stands in the way. So we abandon the field to the Dobsons and Falwells of the world who move into this prominent vacuum virtually unopposed. It’s really our fault for letting them.

Your comment about the priesthood of all believers is my favorite. I am all for recovering the full meaning of the Priesthood calling of all of God's people. It is a noble calling, the very thing we are saved >for<. It would answer the mail very nicely. Almost everyone who uses the language of salvation limits their vocabulary to the "from" side of the equation, completely forgetting there is a much bigger motive to this madness on the “for” side. It would completely alter - and reform - the landscape of Christianity in America today. Pull that off and I'll go with you on that ride wherever it takes us.


Anonymous said...

We can't tell from Stushie's remarks whether these signs were posted to be near a voting location. If that's the case, it was not an issue of separation of church and state. Nor was the sermon support for a candidate or cause in the Episcopal church. These do not involve the sponsorship of a religion by government.