MICHEL MARTIN, host:
We've been talking about how the presidential race is unfolding on the campaign trail. But there's another place where the contest is taking center stage - in the pews, in the pulpits and houses of worship around the country - at least some of them. With so much at stake for many people, this election is not just a matter of politics. It's a matter of faith. Even so, you will not find most religious leaders endorsing candidates from the pulpit or opposing candidates by name. Since 1954, the government has banned tax exempt organizations from direct involvement in political campaigns and that law has been interpreted to mean, no endorsements from the pulpit. But a group of pastors wants to change the law. Last month, 33 pastors from around the country banded together to openly violate the law. An effort called the Pulpit Initiative organized by the conservative legal group, Alliance Defense Fund. I'm joined by one of the ministers involved in the action, Bishop Robert Smith of the Word of Outreach Christian Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. I'm also joined by Madison Shockley. He's pastor of the Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, California and he is a vocal supporter of the law discouraging political endorsements from the pulpit. I welcome you both. Thank you so much for joining us.
Bishop ROBERT SMITH (Word of Outreach Christian Center, Little Rock, Arkansas): Thank you.
Mr. MADISON SHOCKLEY (Pastor, Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, California): Good to be with you.
MARTIN: Bishop Robert Smith, I want to begin with you. What moved you to join the challenge to the law?
Bishop SMITH: Well, actually, to get back to the original expression of the establishing of the first amendment rights of free speech and the fact that state cannot tell church how to conduct this business.
MARTIN: Do you feel that your right to worship and express yourself as you see fit within the boundaries of your religion was compromised by this law - is compromised?
Bishop SMITH: The Johnson Amendment did it.
MARTIN: Have you always felt this way since you've been preaching?
Bishop SMITH: Exactly.
MARTIN: Pastor Shockley, this is Bishop Smith. You heard him say this is a matter of, in essence, moral leadership. It's a matter of his free speech rights. What do you say to that?
Pastor SHOCKLEY: I think the government has its right to determine how public resources are used and that's what ultimately is at issue when the Internal Revenue Service exempts an organization, and it not just an exemption for churches, it's an exemption for non-profit organizations who, in the eye of the law, are meant to be for public benefit. When they give that exemption, they're essentially supporting the activity, and they determine, and I think it's reasonably so, that organizations for public benefit should not use their resources to endorse or oppose a particular candidate. Churches are not restricted in there free speech, it's the church's choice whether they want to receive the subsidy from the Internal Revenue Service or the exemption from the Internal Revenue Service or not. And so if they want to be able to speak freely and endorse candidate then they simply forgo the exception.
MARTIN: What about that, Bishop Smith, why not forgo the exception because the (unintelligible) that tax payers who don't share you're view shouldn't have to subsidize them.
Bishop SMITH: Well, actually the public do not subsidize the church. As the matter of fact, the church is not the byproduct of the state but the state is the byproduct of the church.
MARTIN: But it does in the sense that your getting favorable tax treatment that is not extended to people who organize themselves in other ways, for example, if you had a group folks who just got to together to talk about, you know, their pets for example, they wouldn't, they don't get the same tax treatment you do.
Bishop SMITH: Well, the government wasn't formed due to pets and their rights. The government was formed because of the desire for free expression of one's faith, so faith is the factor and not the pets or any other subject matter.
MARTIN: Is your argument that because religious institutions predate the founding of the state that they have some sort of preeminent rights?
Bishop SMITH: Well.
MARTIN: At least by that standard, I mean slavery predated the founding of the American, you know, government and yet we don't as a, you know, our elected representative with the support of the people have abolished that particular practice, saying it's no longer appropriate. So what's the difference?
Bishop SMITH: Well, it wasn't appropriate in the founding of the republic and it wasn't actually in the Constitution, it just was misinterpreted just like...
Pastor SHOCKLEY: Well, let me ask the Bishop a different question. Bishop, do you think that the government has a right to tax the property that churches use as other corporations occupy and use property or the tax fee revenues of the corporation of the church as government taxes other corporations.
Bishop SMITH: Not if the taxation inhibits or precludes the church from free exercise of its faith and this is what the first amendment is about.
Pastor SHOCKLEY: No, would that be the case if they simply taxed the property as all of the property in the neighborhood is taxed?
Bishop SMITH: No, the property of the church should not be taxed because it brings about an undue burden in expressing its faith.
MARTIN: I think Pastor Shockley, I think that Bishop Smith's point is that the First Amendment is foundational. It's like a foundational principle which precedes others. What do you say to that?
Pastor SHOCKLEY: And that's what the confusion is. This is not an issue of free speech. This is an issue of tax regulation, and so that's why I was asking that the government have any right to tax the property that a church occupies in a municipality. And so if they have the right to tax the church, then if they wish to waive that tax that's a government decision, not a church decision to claim that exemption. They granted that exception. But if the Bishop doesn't believe that the government has the right to tax a church at all, that's a very different issue.
Bishop SMITH: Well, again. The republic was established because of the desire for free speech, free exercise of one's faith. And when the state - get this, the Johnson Amendment was never really intended to affect the church. The church was dragged into that particular argument with Johnson not wanting his seat in the Senate to be challenged. He just didn't want non-profits to have the ups on the ability to challenge his seat.
MARTIN: But Bishop can I just ask you this, why not simply teach values and assume your congregants can make decisions based on the truths that you taught? Why do you have to explicitly endorse candidates by name or oppose candidates by name from the pulpit?
Bishop SMITH: That's an excellent question. As far as a pastor concern, his obligation is to watch for the souls of the congregate and also to let them know that they ought to be considering the outcome of his practical expression of his faith. So, as Paul said, follow me as I follow Christ. So what would Christ do in the scenario? He would vote principles and not personality. So the congregation, if they are sitting under a particular minister, not only should they be listening to the principles, but they ought to be looking for the practice, and the practice is we have been planted in a republic which means it's a representative government ruled by law, and so we are to preach the law, that is the law of faith, the law of Christ, it is the kingdom, etc. And then let the people connect the morality factor to the principality of responsibility. So I have a responsibility to make sure the people connect the dots to see the big picture, deal with the issue, deal with the process of a republic, and then go and vote for the person who will legislate the principle.
MARTIN: Pastor Shockley, go ahead.
Pastor SHOCKLEY: (unintelligible) determine that themselves. If they've been studying a particular doctrine for all their lives and candidate X pops up, they don't have sufficient wisdom and judgment and discernment to identify whether or not that person is worthy of their support.
MARTIN: But Pastor Shockley, let me ask you this, I mean the civil rights movement, the labor movement in some places, all orchestrated with the help of the faith community, can you really draw a line between political organizing and endorsements? Isn't this an arbitrary distinction in some ways?
Pastor SHOCKLEY: Well, the churches are allowed to organize around issues and propositions, and that's not restrictive. And so as the church and the civil rights movement was organizing against segregation, they were perfectly allowed to do that, but if Bull Connor was on the ballot, they would not be allowed to say, don't vote for Bull Connor. And I suspect they wouldn't need to be told not to vote for Bull Conor, and that's the difference.
Bishop SMITH: Well, the church is a little bit different. Jesus said to his disciples, his leaders, you make sure that you disciple the nations. You tell them how to act, how to operate, and then make sure they observe - to do all that I commanded you. So it's not just a principle, it's a practice.
MARTIN: OK. Pastor Shockley, I'm going to give the last word. I gave Bishop Smith the first word. I'm going to give you the last word, very briefly, if you would?
Pastor SHOCKLEY: Well, I would say that, I think the government can tax a piece of property so that the government can put sewers down the street which benefit the entire community and that, you know, churches should pay that portion of public benefit. The government has given non-profits an exemption as way of saying, hey, you do so something good for the community and so we're not going to tax you, and that I think that's a reasonable rule. I think it's also dangerous on the spiritual side, but each member has to make that determination. I know that the congregations that I have served, they would throw me out if I told them that they needed my advice on how to commit.
MARTIN: And we're going to have to leave it there, and it's very interesting dilemma. It will be interesting to see how it turns out, we're hearing from Pastor Madison Shockley of the Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, California. He joined us by phone from his home. We also heard from Bishop Robert Smith of the Word of Outreach Christian Center in Littlerock, Arkansas. He joined us from Littlerock. And I thank you both.
Pastor SHOCKLEY: Thank you.
Bishop SMITH: Thank you
MARTIN: Barber Shop is next, you're listening to Tell me More from NPR News, I'm Michel Martin.