ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
From the politics of the bailout to the politics of the pulpit, today the ministers of about 30 U.S. churches stepped into the political ring and took on the IRS. The pastors are organized by a conservative group called the Alliance Defense Fund. They're challenging IRS rules that say a tax-exempt church can't directly participate in political campaigns or endorse a candidate. The group argues that this IRS rule violates the First Amendment right to free speech. And they've dubbed today Pulpit Freedom Sunday. We'll look at this from both sides of the debate now.
First, Ron Johnson, Jr. of Living Stones Church in Crown Point, Indiana. He's one of the pastors involved in the protest. He broke down the presidential race for his congregation today, specifically the candidates' views on abortion and gay marriage. But he didn't exactly make an endorsement.
Reverend RON JOHNSON, JR. (Pastor, Living Stones Church, Crown Point, Indiana): What I did that the IRS would not supposedly allow me to do was I specifically said that based upon Senator Barack Obama's views on these two issues, I could not vote for him as a Christian.
SEABROOK: And you're not worried about losing your tax-exempt status?
Reverend JOHNSON, JR.: Well, the thing that most Americans have been duped into believing is that somehow the tax exemption is a gift or a benefit given to us by governments. But, you know, the tax exemption has been something that churches have had from the beginning of our country simply because our founding fathers understood that the power to tax is the power to destroy.
SEABROOK: It appears, though, that the purpose of the IRS rules is that the country doesn't want campaigns to pose as churches and then not have to pay taxes. So, how do you do that if you don't put in some kind of rule like this?
Reverend JOHNSON, JR.: Well, I don't think that's an issue in the sense that there's not a pastor in America that's going to stand up at a pulpit and turn the pulpit into a political machine and have any kind of a following for very long. We encourage people to get involved and vote. We encourage people to run for office. But we do not promote either party. And again, I don't think that's certainly not what this pulpit initiative is about at all.
SEABROOK: So just to sum up then, what is it about?
Reverend JOHNSON, JR.: We should be able to speak about all of society from the pulpit. If we cannot as pastors stand in the pulpit and talk about, you know, the Wall Street crisis or talk about global warming or talk about a variety of other issues, the war in Iraq, and preach about these issues from a biblical world view standpoint, then something's the matter. And we're just simply saying, you know, that's not right for the government to be infringing in our, basically, in our arena.
SEABROOK: Pastor Ron Johnson, Jr. is the senior associate pastor of Living Stones Church in Crown Point, Indiana. Thanks very much.
Reverend JOHNSON, JR.: Thank you.
SEABROOK: There's another group of clergy on the other side of this issue. Among them is Reverend Stephen Smith of St. Patrick's Episcopal Church in Columbus, Ohio. He joins us from member station WCBE. Reverend Smith, welcome.
Reverend STEPHEN SMITH (Pastor, St. Patrick's Episcopal Church, Columbus, Ohio): Thank you.
SEABROOK: Now, why shouldn't a church or a pastor be able to say anything they want from the pulpit?
Reverend SMITH: Well, I think that they can. The stipulation with the IRS rules is simply a conflict of interest. If we endorse a particular party, as I understand, or endorse a particular candidate, then there is some danger that we might be too allied with that party or candidate when they get in power and might get some benefits because of our tax exemption.
SEABROOK: You also addressed politics in your sermon this morning, would you say?
Reverend SMITH: Well, I talked about how actually to endorse candidates robs us of our power, because in a democracy to really get any true public policy done, you really need the cooperation of everybody who's in power, all parties. And I said that in, especially in the 20th century, the biggest influence the church ever had on public policy was during prohibition and during the civil rights movement, and at no time during the church's influence over those issues of public policy did they ever need to endorse a candidate or a party to have any influence.
SEABROOK: Still, shouldn't it be the church's choice how they try and influence politics?
Reverend SMITH: Absolutely. Absolutely. And we can do that without endorsing candidates.
SEABROOK: So, what do you think of these pastors who've band together to say that they should be able to endorse a candidate from the pulpit?
Reverend SMITH: If they choose to do that, that's fine. I object to it. I don't think it's the right thing to do. And I think they are limiting their influence and their power because they're allowing themselves to be put in the back pocket of a single party, and that makes them little more than a special interest group.
SEABROOK: So, what do you think the church's role in politics should be?
Reverend SMITH: Well, my understanding is the church's role is to make whatever community it finds itself in, whatever country it finds itself in, more like the kingdom of God, to care for people, to make sure that the least of these are never forgotten or abandoned, and to build societies of justice and fairness.
SEABROOK: Reverend Stephen Smith. He is an Episcopal priest at St. Patrick's Church in Columbus, Ohio. Thanks very much.
Reverend SMITH: Thank you.
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