View from the Pew
U.S. Sen. Barack Obama addressed the biennial General Synod meeting of the United Church of Christ last June in Hartford, Conn. The United Church of Christ was notified in February that the IRS is investigating it for possible political activities because Obama spoke there.
Church / State
A gathering next week will explore how the government and religion can legally coexist
Having faith, belonging to a religion, admitting to spiritual grounding are as much a part of the self-portrait that voters expect of political candidates as their experience and insight, political connections, stable personal life, life-defining moments. Just don't lay it on too thick or you could fall off the slate.
But people, voter and candidate alike, are wary about taking religion into the political arena. The First Amendment looms and especially the interpretation by Thomas Jefferson that there's a "wall of separation" between church and state.
Most people in religious organizations are beyond skittish about talking politics in church. Never mind the Constitution -- there are the Internal Revenue Service and tax laws restricting free speech to safeguard tax-exempt status.
That looms large for one of the country's oldest and largest Protestant denominations. The United Church of Christ was notified in February that the IRS is investigating it for possible political activities because Barack Obama spoke to its biennial synod in Hartford, Conn., last June.
Local UCC congregations were contributing to a nationwide legal defense fund, but it was halted when Wilmer Hale, a Washington, D.C., law firm specializing in tax law, offered to take the case pro bono because it is a defining issue.
"The UCC has received lots of support from other religious groups because of the potential precedent that would be set," said the Rev. Charles Buck, Hawaii conference minister of the denomination, which encompasses churches founded here by the first Christian missionaries from New England.
"The very worst-case scenario would be that the IRS says we engaged in political activity and we would lose our tax exemption for 2007," Buck said. It would affect thousands of people who contributed to their churches last year; "If you itemized those deductions, they would not be good anymore."
Buck is optimistic that it will not got that far. "It has never happened to a denomination before. If it did, there would be a fight ... from a lot of denominations."
At any rate, the UCC convention did not endorse Obama as a presidential candidate, and the organizers would not allow his campaign crew to distribute literature in the meeting.
As most church leaders would know, those are two of the major no-nos in the Ten Commandments of the IRS.
Buck and the Rev. John Heidel, president of the Interfaith Alliance of Hawaii, do not believe that religious organizations need to stand mute when the subject is politics or government. It's possible for churches to obey the restrictions but still have a voice.
"The church and the pulpit have always been a place to comment and observe what's going on in society," Buck said. "That's the prophetic tradition, to be able to interpret the signs of the times. Ministers attempting to make the faith and the Bible relevant are always going to be commenting on what is going on."
Buck said: "There is no such thing as a privatized faith. What good is a faith that doesn't speak to the issues of the day? Take a look at the Bible. Jesus did not flinch from the issues of the day."
Heidel said: "We are convinced that the First Amendment does not talk about an absence of a relationship, and no talking between the two institutions, religion and politics. What they are talking about is undue influence, one upon the other."
A person entering government "can't just leave faith at the door, like it has no impact. That's the whole purpose of faith, to have an impact on your life," Heidel said. "We have to be discerning, as a voting public, about what exactly the religion and politics of a candidate are ... so we can choose those who represent our will."
The Interfaith Alliance of Hawaii will sponsor a forum next Saturday, hoping to stir a community conversation about where government and religion can connect, safely and legally. Heidel pointed out: "We work together locally on homeless issues, substance abuse, domestic violence. You find areas of commonality and find areas that need attention, rather than seeing ourselves as institutions that can't be involved with each other."
Ideally it will just be the first of many conversations that offers a chance to explore issues in a community rather than waits until one element is pitted against the other in a confrontation or court case. "One of our goals is that this be an educational thing ... that everyone be involved in this conversation and doing it appropriately," Heidel said.
Heidel said for the conversation to work, people of different faiths need to "develop an interfaith language. So when someone with a strong personal faith runs for office, he would know how to honor the interconnection of people. Rather than say 'If we're going to solve this problem, we're going to all need to be Christian,' it would be 'Because of my faith as a Christian, I perceive this situation in the following way.'"
The conversation also has to involve "someone who is anti-religion for whatever reason. How do we honor that feeling?"
"To stop the conversation, to ban interaction, is going down a road which may not be helpful to the whole community. Most of the great universal principles are present in all faiths, in strong families, are present in humanist philosophy and great literature. They're there because they all benefit the common good," Heidel said.
The national Interfaith Alliance has produced guidebooks for candidates, and for places of worship, about what is acceptable intermingling and what is forbidden. The Hawaii branch has distributed the booklets locally, and they can be found on the Web page: www.interfaithalliance.org.
The local Interfaith Alliance branch lives up to its name, with members of Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and other faiths besides Christian denominations. They just crafted a position statement on separation of religion and government. It says:
"All people of faith need to address the question: What is the appropriate expression of faith in the public arena?
"We believe that religion is personal, but never just private; that religion is also actively involved in the public sector. We believe ... that both religion and politics should act with inclusion and transformation rather than exclusion and maintaining the status quo."
"Religion and Politics: Polite Conversations"
Saturday, April 19, 10 a.m. to noon. at Central Union Church, 1660 S. Beretania St.
A free forum with:
U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie
Puanani Burgess, Hawaiian community organizer
Pastor Allen Cardines Jr., president of Transformation Hawaii
Youth speakers Cameron Kubota and Ryan Nakasone
The Rev. John Heidel, moderator
Sponsors: The Interfaith Alliance of Hawaii, United Methodist Church Committee on Church and Society, Christ Church Uniting Disciples and Presbyterians, Faith Action for Community Equity, M.K. Gandhi Institute for Non-Violence, Transformation Hawaii, All Believers Network, Hope Chapel Nanakuli, Inclusive Orthodox Church, First Unitarian Church of Honolulu, Central Union Church
Maintaining the divide
The Interfaith Alliance has produced election year guides for candidates and churches, available at its Web page: www.interfaithalliance.org/elections.
"A Campaign Season Guide for Houses of Worship" tells churches that, to protect their tax-exempt status:
» Do not endorse candidates or political parties.
» Do not post campaign signs on church property.
» Do not make a donation or loan to a candidate, political party or political action committee.
» Do not ask a candidate's support for a religious denomination's position on an issue.
» Do not provide anything of value including space, equipment, mailing lists or staff time without charging full market value and allowing equal access to opposing candidates.
» If you open the door to one candidate, you are obligated to grant equal time and equal audience for all other candidates in the race.
"Running for Office in a Multi-Faith Nation" advises candidates:
» Don't suggest spiritual authority can be transferred into political authority.
» Talk about your faith, not the faith of your opponents.
» Respect religious diversity and religious liberty.
» Don't let your opponent or any third-party groups claim to speak for any particular faith.
» Don't assume that agreement on religion guarantees agreement on politics.
» Avoid questionnaires for partisan "faith-based" voter guides.
» If you speak in a house of worship, respect IRS guidelines -- don't ask for votes, don't disparage your opponent and don't claim the endorsement of the congregation or its leaders.
» You cannot fake authenticity and voters can spot a phony.