Cal Thomas is a right-wing columnist who is often identified with the religious right. His column appears on Tuesdays in one of the local papers. I wasn't sure if he would have anything to say about the weekend's Pulpit Freedom Sunday experiment, in which preachers endorsed Senator McCain and other conservative candidates at the risk of their tax-exempt status and in defiance of a 1954 law. Thomas did address the subject, but not quite in the way I expected.
Thomas claims that conservative preachers suffer from a double standard, since liberal or radical black preachers, he claims, are never threatened by the IRS for their political utterances. He blurs distinctions, acknowledging that the "Johnson Amendment" forbids the explicit endorsement or denunciation of candidates, but describing it as a "law restricting political language." There are black preachers who use political language, but Thomas doesn't demonstrate that any of them have endorsed candidates from the pulpit. If he has proof that any did, he ought to take it to the IRS just as Americans United for the Separation of Church & State have reported the Pulpit Freedom Sunday preachers.
To be fair, Thomas's view is that leftists and rightists alike should be free to preach on political subjects without harassment from the government. At the same time, he isn't particularly enthusiastic about the Pulpit Freedom movement. Thomas is a religious rightist who became disillusioned with the Moral Majority and similar projects, believing that they became concerned with getting political power for its own sake. He's come around to the view that churches shouldn't try to reform society from the top down by seizing power or seeking to influence leaders, but from the ground up through their traditional ministries.
He phrases his viewpoint this way in his current column: "No matter how hard they try to protect the gospel from corruption, ministers who focus on politics and politicians as a means of redemption must minimize their ultimate calling and message. The road to redemption does not run through Washington, D.C. Politicians can't redeem themselves from the temptations of Washington. What makes anyone think they can redeem the rest of us?"
Thomas has arrived at the conclusion that it's not a pastor's business to tell people how to vote. "This pulpit rebellion also presumes that congregants lack a worldview or knowledge about candidates and politics that only a pastor can address," he writes, "In my church, we have many highly educated people, Republicans and Democrats, who would not take kindly to the pastor discoursing on politics anymore than they would accept legal or medical advice from their auto mechanic."
In Thomas's view, the Johnson Amendment "has done churches a favor, however inadvertent, by protecting most of them from the downside of electioneering....Whether the law is repealed, or not, churches and ministers would do better to keep their attention focused on the things above, rather than the things below, because politics can be the ultimate temptation and pollute a far superior and life-changing message."
Inevitably, Thomas takes his argument too far for my taste, but since he's arguing as a religious rightist to his brethren, his column should earn him a qualified amen from our quarter.