There is a fairly simple test of validity for Christian civil disobedience, and Pulpit Freedom Sunday fails it. For those who haven’t heard, Pulpit Freedom Sunday is an initiative put together by the Alliance Defending Freedom that has rallied the support of some 1,000 preachers to violate the law today by endorsing political candidates from the pulpit:
Pastors are hoping their bold move will prompt the IRS to enforce the 1954 tax code, the so-called Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations, such as churches, from making political endorsements. The law states it is illegal for churches that receive tax-exempt status from the federal government to intervene in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
Alliance Defending Freedom, which is holding the summit, said it wants the IRS to press the matter so it can be decided in court. The group believes the law violates the First Amendment by “muzzling” preachers.
“The purpose is to make sure that the pastor — and not the IRS — decides what is said from the pulpit,” Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the group, told FoxNews.com. “It is a head-on constitutional challenge.”
It’s a worthy enough cause, I suppose, from a secular standpoint, and I certainly sympathize with an interpretation of the First Amendment which ensures legal protection for political speech, even by non-profit employees. After all, Citizens United taught us that corporations are people and money is speech. It would be a travesty of common sense to accept that but reject the notion that preachers are people and sermons are speech. But, being the confirmed old Christian anarchist that I am, whether or not the preachers have a constitutional case is largely academic for me. I am more concerned with whether or not the this instance of lawlessness is permissible by scriptural standards.
The classic biblical justification for civil disobedience, the clear exception to the otherwise ubiquitous insistence on lawful submission to the state–rendering unto Caesar, being subject to governing authorities, honoring the king–is Peter before the high priest. At first blush, this would appear to be a sound justification for Pulpit Freedom. After all, the issues seems to be the high priest telling Peter and the apostles what they can and cannot preach. Surely, however, our interpretation cannot be so anachronistic as to believe that the principle at issue here was one of free speech and the independence of the church from state censorship. Those are not first century concerns.
The real issue, the obvious issue, the issue that has been recognized by countless thorough and even casual exegetes, is that the commands of the ruling authorities directly interfered with the proper exercise of Christianity (if I may–hypocritically and anachronistically–throw that term back onto Peter). This would be the grounds not only for the continued preaching of the apostles throughout Acts in spite of persistent official and unofficial opposition, but it would also be the rationale that made later Christians prefer martyrdom to burning incense for Caesar, made them refuse under threat of torture and death to renounce the faith, and, if I may let my examples be a little more tribalist, has caused countless conscientious objectors to suffer abuse and death at the hands of the state. In each case, what was at stake was not preference or rights but the essence of Christian living. When a conflict arises between the mandates of God and the mandates of the state, Peter makes abundantly clear what would probably have been obvious nonetheless. God takes priority.
The question then becomes whether or not candidate endorsements are essential to the practice of the faith or, to put it another way, whether or not I can be a good Christian without taking sides politically. Obviously, I spend more time wondering whether or not I can be a good Christian if I do partake of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Whig and Tory, but even those still hopelessly mired in the belief that there is no conflict between faith and politicking must surely admit that it is possible to be a good Christian without being a good Republican, a good Democrat, a good independent, or even a good citizen if we’re defining that as active participation in the democratic process. Or at least I would hope most could admit that. Certainly, I can recognize that there is more than ample room for uncertainty in the realm of civil disobedience, particularly when ethical questions become more slippery than our neat categories of right and wrong can handle. But unless there is someone who would like to argue with me that abstention from politics is a positive sin, then there is no basis on which to believe that something as trivial as the violation of our artificial, contrived rights is grounds to break the law, man’s and God’s.
What we have here, the fundamental conflict for the Alliance Defending Freedom (and let it not be lost on anyone the use of “Defense” and “Freedom,” those two favorite codewords for mobilizing aggressive, militant behavior) is not between what God commands and what the state commands but between what the state promised and what the state delivered. There’s a disconnect, certainly, or at the very least a lack of clarity. In any case, a Christian–or any reasonable person, really–should not be surprised when civil government proves itself inconsistent, self-defeating, and oppressive. That’s the nature of the beast and all the more reason to keep it out of our sanctuaries.
Meanwhile, because I abstain from politics I found myself regrettably compelled to abstain from church today as well. I only hope someone, somewhere had a bolder response. Perhaps, in messianic fashion, someone took a whip (figuratively) and drove the peddlers out of God’s temple. A politician is certainly no less a robber than a vendor. If turning the holy place into a marketplace is enough to get the Son of God angry, do we assume he’ll be any more pleased to see it turned into the Forum?