By The Gazette Editorial Board
The long-running debate over the role of politics in the pulpit is making headlines again.
A Burlington woman raised objections to pamphlets being offered by her church advocating the removal of Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins from the bench. The church’s pastor strongly rebuked the woman in a sermon, saying he’d “like to slap her” and criticizing her husband for failing to “correct her.”
The parishioner filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service. Under a 1954 law, churches are prohibited from direct political advocacy, and risk losing their tax-exempt status if they break the rules. Numerous pastors in recent years have sought to defy the law, hoping for an IRS action that could lead to a court challenge. But so far, the IRS has refrained from taking the bait. Protesting pastors have not been prosecuted. We doubt the Burlington case will be any different.
This is clearly not an optimal arrangement. In a perfect world, laws are enforced, or, better yet, changed in some way to make them a better balance of freedom and necessary oversight. But anyone who watches politics knows this world is far from perfect.
So we have an uneasy truce. The IRS is allowing pastors to espouse political views from the pulpit without prosecution. But, because the law remains in place, churches still can’t be transformed into publicly subsidized political machines, or fast funnels for huge, shadowy political donations. And a wall of protection remains in place for millions of religious Americans who do not want to see their places of worship become entangled in partisan politics.
It’s possible that changes could be made in the law to allow more room for free expression within sensible boundaries. But we do not believe, in these highly polarized times, that Congress would be capable of tackling this issue in a sensible way. It’s likely that both parties would approach the problem with the goal of changing the law in ways that would give them maximum political advantage. It’s probable, perhaps even certain, that we would end up with a law worse than the one we have.
So, grudgingly, we look at this complicated landscape and believe that the status quo is probably the best option at the moment. If the IRS begins overzealously prosecuting pastors for speaking out, or if someone comes forward with a sensible, realistic plan for reforms, we could change our minds. But for now, as with so many other political issues, an uneasy truce is the best we can do.
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