Rabbi Bloom: Free speech shouldn't alienate congregants

www.bethyam.orgOctober 13, 2012 

What should a parishioner do when his or her clergy endorses a candidate for elected office -- a candidate for whom the congregant would not vote?

Imagine the clergyperson invokes the Bible by quoting a few verses, implying that by voting for this person, the worshipper will be voting in a way that is consistent with the teachings of their religion. After the service, fellow congregants say they agree with the endorsement, and they seem to expect the parishioner's reaction to match their own opinions.

In this way, voting becomes a theological affirmation instead of an act of citizenship.

What does one say? How does someone answer with the truth that they do not agree with the religious leader's viewpoint and not risk being ostracized?

One response is to dodge the question, not comment at all or simply walk away. Another is to change the subject. Or, one could compliment the sermon without having to actually state one's opinion. Of course, stating that one disagrees with the pastor's opinion and, therefore, most of the community, might leave one a final option, which is to find another congregation.

I am sure there are people in America's houses of worship who felt that way recently when more than 1,000 clergy nationwide defied Internal Revenue Service rules that prohibit clergy from endorsing candidates for elected office. Their sermons on the so-called Pulpit Freedom Sunday advocated their favorite candidates with the hope of challenging the IRS to come after them and prosecute their commitment to religious freedom in America, which they claim starts from the pulpit in America's houses of worship.

These clergy think the statute, the 1954 Johnson Amendment, introduced by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, restricts religious freedom and freedom of speech. They want to express what they believe is their right to preach in the prophetic tradition and tell their congregants the truth about which candidates exemplify the values closest to their own faith tradition. That value trumps the value of congregants having a politically neutral worship environment.

Far be it from me to defend the IRS. Furthermore, I cherish the right of freedom of speech. But I am not supportive of trading off the possibility of alienating and isolating congregants who do not share the exact viewpoint of their clergy. They feel they have a duty to preach social and political justice. But do they also have a duty to preserve an atmosphere in public worship that is accepting of congregants, regardless of everyone's political opinions? Do they have a duty to protect the right to worship in peace and not to feel intimated from the pulpit?

Johnson introduced this amendment to the tax code to protect Americans from the likes of another senator who wreaked havoc and divisiveness from the political pulpit in the early 1950s. It was former Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy who beat the drums of accusations without proof that many prominent Americans were Communists. He ruined people's lives with unsubstantiated accusations.

Johnson and his Senate colleagues knew the dangers of political partisanship from the nation's political pulpits, which spilled over into demagoguery that threatened the unity of this country. Pulpit Freedom Day claims to support freedom of speech, but what it might end up doing is re-creating the McCarthy culture that bullies and intimidates rather than educates and inspires.

The nation's churches, synagogues and mosques should resist the temptation to go rogue. I fully support clergy preaching on political issues from the pulpit and commenting on what a faith's traditions teach on these issues. But once the clergy crosses the line and begins to endorse a candidate or political party, they have restricted freedom of speech for others who do not interpret Scriptures the same way.

An endorsement from the pulpit is not about the expression of freedom of speech but more likely about an arrogant display of political correctness from the pulpit that taints and diminishes the sacred teachings of a faith tradition.

Any competent clergy can give a sermon that advocates a cause consistent with his or her viewpoint of Scripture without having to single out a candidate or political party. With freedom of speech also comes a responsibility that calls for restraint and wisdom, so dissenters do not have to wear the political scarlet letter in their house of worship and risk derision for not adhering to one interpretation of theological doctrine.

Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter, @rabbibloom.

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