The only guest speakers that have ever occasioned protest and walkouts have been those who represented a political view or suddenly pronounced one. We have had people speak about the Muslim and Christian faith with no incident. But recently at an interfaith service in my synagogue, an invited Pastor made an offensive statement about the politics of the Middle East. From that moment on there was a strained and uncomfortable quality to the entire evening. Instead of unity, there was division–a legacy of our political climate.
What is true inside an organization is true between organizations. I have done my share of interfaith work. When there are breakdowns it is rarely because adherents of one religion refuse to countenance the theology of the other. We can usually listen to different conceptions of God and worship with equanimity. Yet when someone stakes out a political position, people no longer feel they are part of the same spiritual enterprise. In our age the battle is less over the bible than the ballot.
Now imagine that each Rabbi and Minister is under pressure to endorse. Believe me, once endorsements are permitted they will become expected. Not only will it tear individual houses of worship apart, but it will divide those that could otherwise work together. All of them will be labeled for their political orientations, first and foremost. You may as well affix an elephant or a donkey instead of a cross on your church, because that is how it will be seen – a Republican church or a Democratic one. Preachers that do not endorse will be derided as pusillanimous and lacking conviction. Discourse in the synagogue and church, especially around election time, will be as toxic as our political discourse has become, because they will be one and the same.
People should not be able to give tax exempt contributions to religious organizations in order to support a candidate. Preachers who care about political endorsements can always say what they want, but they forfeit the right to be a tax free entity. More important, keeping a corner free of politics is like keeping worship services free of cellphones: it carves a space from the din of everyday life that permits the spirit to enter.
Although most support retaining the amendment, opponents argue that the act has been violated without consequence, and the distinction about endorsing is untenable and it restricts religious liberty. There is no question that the law is not a bright line law – it requires some interpretation. But that same argument is true for the vast majority of our laws, and the fact that some opponents have deliberately violated it to provoke a court challenge makes a mockery of the claim that no one knows when the law is being violated.
Some religious traditions are admittedly more politically oriented than others. But within all the faith traditions there are both liberal and conservative strains. To argue there is only one way to read the bible ignores both history and your equally faithful neighbor. Moreover, the amendment does not prevent Pastors from speaking – only from doing so under the cloak of tax-exemption.