Thursday, February 28, 2008

Gossip Column: Rev. Thom's Endorsement

In my column in the March DrumBeat newsletter I wrote very briefly about my own thoughts on “Politics in Church.” In that column I had to keep my remarks to a single page, but I promised I would expand and clarify my ideas in greater detail in an essay on this blog.

By the way, like my sermon on 2/17, the title of this blog entry is an empty teaser. You are not going to find any endorsement here, not even subtly.

Defining Politics
I always think it is important when discussing politics to give something of an introduction to the word itself. The word “politics” derives from the Greek word “polis” meaning “city.” Ancient Greece was a consortium of city-states. Cities (not nations or empires) were the most highly organized groupings of people. Politics, then, are matters that concern the city (or state or nation.) A politician is one who governs the city. To be political is to be involved in the affairs of the city (county, state, nation, etc.)

First Point: On Monday 2/25 I reported for jury duty in Independence, Missouri. The judge who addressed the prospective juror pool spoke to us about a number of things, including the fact that Missouri is second only to Mississippi as the worst state in the nation at compensating jurors ($6/day and $0.07/mile.) He also spoke about how judges were selected in Missouri. He spoke about how Missouri reformed the process after the big political machines of St. Louis and Kansas City had stacked the bench for years. But he also said that it is impossible to completely remove politics from the system. He said that all groups have politics: families, churches, schools, etc.

Second Point: During orientation at Harvard Divinity School one of our speakers was a local minister in Boston who served an African-American church in a tough part of the city. He described the changing point in his ministry. His church had been very insular until one evening it hosted a social dance for youth in the community. A youth gang-member shot another youth at the church dance. The minister took this lesson away: “If the church didn’t take itself to the city, the city would take itself to the church.” The church got political, in this wider sense of the term that I just defined. The church worked with the mayor’s office and the chief of police to form a task force on youth violence. Together they developed a program that involved community outreach, intervention, relationship building, and meaningful activities for youth including summer programs and internships. They managed to reduce the rate of youth violence to an astronomically low level. This all was very political in the literal sense of the word.

Political Involvement: The IRS Rules
So, clearly, a church can be extremely political. There are however, certain restrictions on certain kinds of political activities within a church. Under IRS guidelines, our church is a 501(c)3 non-profit religious organization. IRS regulations place certain restrictions on us. You can read the rules that apply to churches, but the basics of the regulations are as follows:

First, churches are strictly prohibited from candidate endorsement. No church leader may endorse any candidate for office at any church function or in any church publication or communication. Churches are also barred from supporting any candidate monetarily (no campaign donations) or materially (donating office space to a candidate, for example.)

Second, there are restrictions on how much time and money a church can devote to issue advocacy. The IRS does not explicitly set a limit, but it is generally accepted that a church can spend no more than 5% of its operating budget on issue advocacy. SMUUCh has an annual budget of $400,000. If we wanted to, we could spend up to $20,000 lobbying on a political issue. Suppose we cared deeply about keeping laws limiting stem cell research from being passed in Kansas. We could hire a part-time lobbyist or donate a considerable sum to a group working on this issue. This is all purely hypothetical. We have absolutely no plans to hire a lobbyist. But we would be allowed to do so. In fact, a consortium of UU churches in California has founded a Legislative Ministry and fund a full-time lobbyist.

It is drastically important to follow these rules. The result of our church losing its tax-exempt status would be devastating. I estimate the cost to the church would be approximately one half-million dollars if we lost our tax exempt status.

To stay in the good graces of the IRS, there are some very simple things we don’t do. I don’t tell you who to vote for on Sunday morning. I don’t endorse candidates in the all-church email or in the newsletter. I don’t even put political stickers on my car – my car is seen as the minister’s car. (My car is the one that sorely needs to get washed.) I don’t endorse on my blog, because I blog as Rev. Thom and for the Shawnee Mission UU Church. If I had a blog that was completely personal, I suppose I could endorse a candidate.

Beyond me, there is the necessity that every church leader while acting in a leadership role (teaching an RE course, speaking at the Speaker’s Corner, presiding over a church event) similarly refrain from candidate endorsement.

Political Involvement: What is Allowed?
Basically, everything (with the exception of candidate endorsement and spending large sums of money on issue advocacy) is allowed. The words, actions, and non-actions of politicians are open for either condemnation or commendation, as long as that politician is not actively campaigning during an election cycle.

Similarly, I am allowed to speak on Sunday morning or in any public forum on any issue: evolution, stem cell research, war, poverty, health care, civil rights, etc. However, I cannot tell you to vote for politicians who support these positions.

Tell Us How You Really Feel
I suppose I should tell you what I think of these IRS regulations. First, I am willing to bet that many churches in our community trespass against these regulations, if not overtly break them. They host a favored candidate at a church event. They produce slimy, biased voter-guides. They use church resources to assist a campaign. A minister out-and-out tells the parishioners for whom to vote. Two wrongs do not make a right. Because they do does not mean that we should too.

But should we be allowed to? Ah, that it is a different question. Frankly, I wish the IRS would get rid of their rules. I am generally opposed to an agency of the government keeping track of what is said from the pulpit. I am also concerned about fairness in regulation. When liberals are in office are conservative churches monitored more closely? When conservatives are in office are liberal churches more closely watched?

That said, would I endorse candidates if I could? I could think of circumstances when I would. One need only think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Dissenting Church movement in Nazi Germany to find an example of political speech that deserved to be spoken. However, I am also wary. In my opinion, the relationship between the Republican Party and the conservative Evangelical churches has been a relationship of exploitation. Those churches are getting used. Forrest Church said that when religion decides to get into bed with electoral politics, it is always religion that asks, “Will you respect me in the morning?” And the answer is always, “No.”

Beyond the Rules
This discourse on the rules has been only an introduction to what I really want to talk about. The rules and regulations are important, but most of what I want to say is not about legalisms. I want to talk about the type of community I want us to be during an election cycle.

During the 2004 election cycle, I wrote a newsletter column the September before the election that November. Even though it is not yet March, I feel like I could have written this essay several months ago. Just as states have moved their primart and caucus dates earlier and earlier and just as politicians fund-raise full-time, it seems this message deserves to be given earlier and earlier each year.

Looking across the religious landscape of our country, we see churches torn by internal political divisions. Debates around gay marriage and ordination, along with the spiritual leadership of women has wreaked havoc on the Mainline denominations in the United States. Unitarian Universalist churches have been remarkable for our capacity to embrace equal marriage and other issues without leaving a trail of carnage and brokenness as a result. I do not know of a single UU church that has imploded over the issue, whereas hundreds have in the other denominations. This is nothing new. The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement caused problems in many churches in many denominations. Or go back to the civil war. That’s the reason we have American Baptists and Southern Baptists.

My aspiration for our church community at SMUUCh is that we are an inclusive place for people with different political views. This does not mean avoiding issues in our discussions with one another. Remember the words from the prog rock band Rush, “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.” This does not mean that you are discouraged from wearing political buttons on your clothing or putting bumper stickers on your car. It does mean remembering that we come to church to be a community, not a rag-tag militia of supporters for a particular candidate or another. There is greater political diversity at SMUUCh than is readily evident and that is a good thing, not a bad thing.

In an ideal world, we would all come to church focused on those things that are a part of our church’s mission. I ask you to imagine a widget-dealer who comes to church with the idea of getting other people interested in the purchase of widgets. That person would be using the church for their own ends rather than arriving mindful of what they might bring to our community and what the purposes of our church are.

In UU community and theology there is a constant tension between what we might call “independence” and what we might call “taking principled stands.” We are at once a community of free-thinking souls and a part of a religious movement that has always taken stands on issues that are relevant to the principles we advocate. There will always be this tension. But, I do think it important for every member of our church to understand the positions our Association has taken on important issues of the day and that Unitarian Universalists have a long, long history of taking strong stands.

I would conclude this essay exactly how I concluded my newsletter column in September 2004:
“It is not in keeping with who we are as a church to engage in behaviors that are exclusive and make anyone feel unwelcome because of their political affiliation. As a covenanted community, we strive to treat everyone with respect. Nobody has the right to make anyone else feel attacked or unwelcome. But, our church is a place where you do not check who you are at the door. It is not a place where differences are feared, but a place of meaningful dialogue and searching that deepens us along our spiritual search. It is a place where dialogue happens and real dialogue requires both respectful speaking and respectful listening.”
So may it be!