Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Congregations face decisions over politics

Holy Redeemer Catholic Church has protested economic injustices, registered parishioners to vote and handed out voter guides after weekly Masses.

But endorse a candidate from the pulpit?

Not a chance.

“It's not about me, but it's about Jesus Christ and what he calls us to do,” said Father Kevin Fausz, pastor of the predominantly African-American congregation on the city's East Side.

“You have to be cautious because sometimes personalities can get too involved.”

But for other ministers, the line is more blurry. Some routinely tell their flock during election season who will get their vote. And others have invited candidates to speak at political forums or in some cases asked them to give a sermon from the pulpit.

Today, in more than 30 churches across the country, pastors will endorse a presidential candidate, and — depending on how they say it and how far they push it — they could draw a challenge from the Internal Revenue Service. In fact, that's what they are hoping for because they dislike a 1954 law that bans congregations — although not ministers individually — from endorsing candidates or face losing their tax-exempt status.

None of the pastors is in San Antonio but the initiative puts a spotlight on the national debate about how involved congregations can — and should — be in expressing political views and the limits of federal tax law on such speech.

In San Antonio, TV evangelist and Cornerstone Church pastor John Hagee is upfront about which candidates he likes. He has invited some to speak from his pulpit, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee last December. But when Hagee endorsed Republican presidential nominee John McCain earlier this year, it backfired, and he and the candidate parted company.

Pastor Robert Emmitt of Community Bible Church, which draws more than 10,000 people to weekend services, typically tells his congregation for whom he's voting. So far, he said, it's generally been Republican candidates only because they are more likely to oppose abortion.

“As a pastor, we're free and within our legal rights to say who we're supporting. I'm pro-life so that ought to tell you something. I'm supporting McCain and the Republican Party,” he said. “I have no issues against (Democratic presidential nominee Barack) Obama. Of course, he's not pro life.”

At Concordia Lutheran Church, political activism emanates mainly from its Salt and Light ministry. Volunteers at the church stand ready to register people to vote, a permissible practice for nonprofit organizations. If members provide their e-mail addresses, the ministry sends out “alerts” from the Free Market Foundation, a nonprofit Christian organization based in Plano and associated with the Focus on the Family, the conservative Christian ministry founded by Dr. James Dobson.

“Yeah, maybe we're only looking for conservatives, but I'm sorry, that's all we have at the church,” said John Sabatino, a founder of Salt and Light at Concordia and former chair of the Bexar County Christian Coalition. “We know — do I dare call them heathens — are going to support their candidates. So we know we have to find conservatives, and where are they? They're in church.”

The church's pastor, Bill Tucker, said he avoids endorsing politicians or related speech. In his opinion, that would break the law and jeopardize his No. 1 priority of spreading the Christian message of salvation, he said. Each time Election Day approaches, he preaches about being engaged in society as Christians.

“My call and commitment to this congregation is to be a spiritual leader and proclaim the Gospel,” he said. “I'm not going to stand up and say that as a matter of God's will this is who you should vote for.”

Challenging the law

The Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal advocacy agency based in Arizona, plans to defend, if necessary, the 30-plus ministers who are endorsing a candidate today. The ADF came up with the “Pulpit Initiative” earlier this year because it believes churches and other faith groups, including liberal ones, are overly restricted by the IRS and its vague rules governing political expression by religious groups.

“We hope to establish the right of pastors to freely speak from the pulpit and not fear the IRS or any other group,” said ADF attorney Dale Schowengerdt.

The IRS is monitoring the ministers today and “will take action as appropriate,” said agency spokesman Dean Patterson. In recent years, the IRS has reported receiving a growing number of complaints that congregations are violating the ban on endorsing candidates.

Because the pastors who signed up for the ADF initiative are evangelical and conservative, it's expected they'll endorse McCain, Schowengerdt said, adding they plan to forward their remarks to the IRS. He believes the pastors can legally go so far as to state that their church endorses the candidate as well.

“When they discuss their faith and how it impacts the qualifications of candidates, certainly they can say, ‘We think our faith prevents us from supporting whomever or that it allows us to support whomever,'” he said.

Such political activity caused Paul Soupiset to move away from conservative Christian churches, he said, because his former church, in voter guides and from the pulpit, put pressure on its members to oppose abortion and homosexuality. Now, he attends Covenant Baptist Church on the North Side, which, according to its pastor Gordon Atkinson, avoids discussion of politics from the pulpit and other official church settings.

“My friends and conversation partners about faith sort of reject the far right and the far left and there's sort of a more winsome middle ground to be had,” said Soupiset, who is voting for Obama. “For example, I can state clearly that I'm probably pro life but to me, how that phrase has been defined has been narrow and insufficient. Life's not just about the abortion issue but about being pro-people who are living imprisoned or met with the short end of justice.”

Democrat-leaning Christians make up the majority at the 150-member Divine Redeemer Presbyterian Church on the West Side, although a few known Republican voters also belong to the church. Social responsibility, especially outreach to immigrants, is the church's main focus. Situated in a primarily first-generation, Hispanic community, Spanish is often the residents' first language.

The church does voter registration drives, prays for elected officials and urges members to be informed citizens. It also is active in community advocacy groups, such as COPS/Metro Alliance.

Pastor Rob Mueller personally is voting for Obama, a fact his car's bumper stickers overtly reveal. But inside the church, during services and other official ministry, Mueller said there's no mention of candidates. And in informal settings, the church tries to foster an environment where members can easily differ on their choice of candidates.

“People of similar convictions can come to different conclusions,” he said. “It's God's job to be at work in each person's development spiritually, socially and politically.”

Catholics' choice

For area Catholics, San Antonio Archbishop José Gomez has pressed them to study Catholic teachings and apply those to shape their conscience about elections. His recent announcements make no mention of which political party or issue is most important.

“I believe in the gift of freedom. People are free. I don't like to tell people what to do. We have to study the issues and learn what the Church teaches and make a personal decision,” he said Friday.

Still, Catholic parishioners sometimes grapple with what political issues they should place at the top when evaluating a candidate. The spectrum of Catholic social teaching, for example, ranges from protection of immigrants' rights and the environment to opposition to abortion and euthanasia.

Abortion, according to U.S. Catholic bishop statements, is the gravest matter of all and has prompted some in their ranks to deny communion to pro-choice politicians. Gomez publicly denounced Sen. Hillary Clinton speaking at St. Mary's University last spring because of her support of abortion rights.

While Gomez said he believes in the “gift of freedom” for Catholics, he also reasserted how critical the issue of abortion is in determining how Catholics vote.

“We believe that abortion is an intrinsic evil,” he said. “Part of the teachings is to do good and avoid evil. So if abortion is evil, we have to take that into account.”

At Holy Redeemer, pro-life issues are espoused along with neighborhood concerns, such as unemployment, said Joseph Oubre, a longtime member of the church's Social Justice Core Team.

“It's hard to evangelize when those basic needs aren't being met,” he said.

Already, he said members have asked him for advice on casting their votes. He remains vague and suggests they study Catholic teachings, he said.

“I can't tell people who to vote for,” he said, “because it's something each person must arrive at.”
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(Source: SAE)

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