A Brief History of Politics From the Pulpit

Statue in the U.S. Capitol of Peter Muhlenberg, the pastor who took off his clerical robes to don the uniform of a colonel

The South Dakota gubernatorial race has brought a lot of public discussion about “church and state” and the Constitutional freedom as well as the moral responsibility of pastors to speak out on political issues and endorse or warn against candidates from the pulpit. Despite the fact that liberals pushing an immoral agenda would rather Christians just shut up about this, it’s great that this discussion is going on, because America’s pastors have been muzzled for too long.

How long have they been muzzled?  Since the Constitution was ratified?  Since the Declaration of Independence?  Try 1954, when a change was inserted to the tax code dealing with all nonprofit organizations.

As James D. Davidson from Purdue University points out in his 1998 article “Why Churches Cannot Endorse or Oppose Political Candidates,” the prohibition on political endorsements or condemnations from the pulpit has nothing to do with the Constitution, the First Amendment, or even Jeffersonian principles of “separation of church and state.”

Rather, it has to do with Senator Lyndon Johnson’s 1954 amendment to the tax code designed specifically to silence his political enemies who were pasting him for his far-Left politics. The Internal Revenue Code was undergoing a major overhaul that year, and this presented the perfect opportunity for the already-paranoid Johnson to do a little “electioneering” of his own to cut off his enemies at the pass.

Nonprofit groups such as the Facts Forum and the Committee for Constitutional Government were criticizing the liberal Johnson, and this change in the tax code was a good way to shut them up.  All evidence indicates Johnson never intended to silence churches through this tax code amendment…but since churches are included in the same nonprofit portion of the 501(c)3 tax code, the collateral damage hit churches all the same.  And liberal secularists have embraced this weapon of collateral damage eagerly and fully.

The Congressional Record of July 2, 1954 indicates Johnson asked to be recognized, requested his amendment be read into the record and submitted, and it was included in the tax bill on the floor without further discussion. In just a few minutes, nearly 200 years of pastoral freedom was snuffed out.

Davidson also cites correspondence from George Reedy, Johnson’s aid, who when asked later said he is “confident that Johnson would never have sought restrictions on religious organizations.”

Says Davidson:

From a constitutional perspective, then, American churches have had every right to endorse or oppose political candidates. They have not participated in all elections, but they have been actively involved in some. For example, many Protestant churches and church leaders delivered sermons and published religious literature opposing Al Smith’s bid to become the nation’s first Catholic president in the 1928 ( Graham, 1945 :181; 198-201; Moore, 1956 :145-200). Constitutional principles have not changed since 1928. Churches still have a constitutional right to endorse or oppose political candidates.

Secularists would rather Christians continue buying the lie that pastors and churches should only deal with “spiritual” things, i.e. theological discussions that never manage to touch or impact the “real world.”  They would have Christians believe that the church has nothing relevant to say in matters of public policy–in fact, to even attempt to say anything would be somehow improper or (forgive the pun) immoral.  Christians and Christian moral teachings, they imply, should stay within the four walls of the church and never intrude into political matters.

Such ideas are not only made up of lies, they are specifically intended to keep their enemies neutralized while they advance a political agenda they know would otherwise be condemned as immoral: killing unborn children, celebrating sex outside of marriage, promoting homosexual behavior, undermining marriage, taking property from some Americans to give to other Americans (otherwise known as stealing),  feathering political nests, rewarding political allies and supporters with money and position, and more.  Many Christians ignorantly play right into their hands, leaving our government and our freedoms to the wolves…along with our rich heritage of Christian involvement in the public square.

Since before our nation was a nation,  American churches have been at the forefront of politics–and they have done so without being subject to taxation.  Our forefathers realized the immense service churches provide to any society (in providing moral teaching which encourages people to be honest, law abiding, treat each other with kindness, respect the sanctity of another’s person and property, etc.), and they also recognized that the power to tax is the power to control.

As French historian Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his Democracy in America, “The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other.” The Christian roots of liberty have been recognized since the early days of Colonial America, and the seeds of the American Revolution were sewn early on this continent.  Many colonial pastors preached on the need for good government as an authority delegated by God.

Rev. Jonathan Mayhew is credited with coining the well-known phrase of the Revolution: “No taxation without representation.”  He preached political sermons over the course of several years prior to the American Revolution, and was strongly opposed to the Stamp Act. His “Snare Broken” sermon was prompted by the repeal of that tax.  His 1750 sermon on submission to government examined “obedience to such rulers as do not perform the pleasure of God, by doing good; but the pleasure of the devil, by doing evil; and such as are not, therefore, God’s ministers, but the devil’s!”

Congregational Rev. Samuel West delivered a sermon on “On the Right to Rebel Against Governors” before the Massachusetts Council and House of Representatives in Boston, 1776.

In England, the American Revolution was often known as the “Presbyterian Revolution” because so many Presbyterian pastors were influential in lighting the fires of the revolution.

Rev. John Witherspoon preached on the similarities between the bondage of the ancient Hebrews in Exodus and the bondage under which the colonies suffered from England.  Witherspoon even joined the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence.

Abraham Keteltas was another minister who preached political sermons in favor of the American revolution.

James Caldwell was a Presbyterian minister who became an army chaplain in the Continental Army, and he came to be known as the “soldier parson.”

The Reverend Peter Muhlenberg was a pastor and colonel in the militia.  He is the historical figure after whom Reverend Oliver in the movie “The Patriot” is modeled, the story going that Muhlenberg had begun a sermon from Ecclesiastes “To everything there is a season…,” taking off his ministerial robe and revealing a military uniform. He was also a brigade commander at the Battle of Yorktown which effectively won the Revolution for America.

Rev. Samuel Cooper preached a sermon on October 25, 1780 on the “Commencement of the Constitution.”  Some more notable members of his congregation include John Adams, Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren and John Hancock.  What a wickedly political church!

Even a Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island wrote George Washington a letter in 1790, pronouncing a blessing on Washington and stating that in light of the new era of freedom being ushered in, “we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies Of Heaven and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good.”

There were countless other pastors who not only spoke politically from the pulpit during Colonial and Revolutionary days, but who put feet to their words.  And political speech from the pulpit did not end after the revolution.

Some pastors feared for their religious freedom because of Thomas Jefferson’s sometimes unorthodox take on religion, and they preached and spoke against him, including Rev. John M. Mason.

A sign advertising a commemoration with an address by famous local abolitionist Reverend Theodore Parker concerning Thomas Sims. Sims was an escaped slave who made it to Boston but was returned to slavery by the Fugitive Slave Act. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

In the fight against slavery prior to the Civil War, clergymen like Rev. Joshua Leavitt, Rev. John Todd, Rev. Luther Lee, Rev. George Pegler, Rev. Samuel Salisbury, Rev. Samuel Phillips, Rev. Benjamin Bradford, Rev. Horace B. Knight and many others spoke out against and worked against the evil of slavery. Some churches such as the Seneca Falls Wesleyan Church became central meeting places for abolitionist groups.  Perhaps these pastors and churches should have stayed out of “politics.”

Other political sermons include those against William Howard Taft and his Unitarian views, as well as against Al Smith in the 1928 election.

More recently we saw Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other pastors like Ralph Abernathy and James Orange preach freedom and the equality of all of God’s children from the pulpit and in the streets.  Had these voices of America’s conscience been intimidated into silence as many of today’s pastors are, where would black Americans be? Would they still be banished from the lunch counter and sitting in the back of the bus?  Try telling MLK his tax exempt status might be in jeopardy!

Seeing this issue in the light of the U.S. Constitution and history,  it is no wonder the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) launched it’s “Pulpit Initiative” two years ago to challenge the unconstitutional 1954 tax amendment and restore pastoral freedom to America’s churches.  Pastors from around the country in 2008 preached a sermon in which they spoke for or against a political candidate with the intent of taking the case to the Supreme Court to overturn the bad law.

Complaints were filed in 2008, but so far no action has been taken against any of these pastors. Pastors did it again in 2009, and still the IRS has taken no action–probably because they know this unconstitutional law WILL be overturned, but the threat of it hanging over the pastors of American can keep them muzzled a little longer.

In the past 50 years since our nation slapped this muzzle on pastors and turned its back on God, we have seen our crime rates explode, teen pregnancy rates skyrocket, the welfare state proliferate, and the American family disintegrate.  America’s churches have been silenced and banished from their public-square role of being the voice of conscience for our society.  It’s no wonder we have million-dollar corruption in Washington and on Wall Street.

America has flirted with socialism and fascism for too long, committing political adultery against the U.S. Constitution and the freedoms hard-bought by our ancestors.  It’s time we returned to the American standard of freedom.

Comments are closed.