Newspapers' weekend religion pages have reported on a call by the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations for "clarity" in the IRS rules that subject churches to audits of their tax-exempt status over alleged political advocacy from the pulpit. Seeming to echo outrage over the auditing of allegedly politicized or partisan "social welfare" organizations, this commission, an outgrowth of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, wants to give clergy more leeway to speak their minds on political subjects without fear of IRS reprisal. They may specifically seek an end to the policy, in place since 1954, effectively forbidding clergy from endorsing candidates. At a minimum, they want an end to a purported double-standard that lets black (and presumably liberal) churches get away with more than others. It seems pretty obvious that conservative clergy are bursting with desire to endorse Republicans, or perhaps those further to the right, though any change of the rules would give equal license to those on the left.
Historical rather than partisan perspective may be useful here. More than 150 years ago, the "Know Nothing" movement demanded special regulations governing the naturalization of Roman Catholics. The Know Nothings believed that it would take longer for Catholics to become Americanized because their supposed habitual subservience to priests was un-American. Even for a long time afterward, Protestant bigots assumed that, given the opportuity, Catholic priests would tell their parishoners whom to vote for. Naturally, Catholics resisted these efforts. But their answer to the Protestant libel wasn't, "So what? It's a free country, isn't it?" Instead, Catholics just about universally resented and denied the charge that they would only vote as their priests instructed. They did not insist on their priests being able to instruct or even advise them as a matter of religous liberty. They insisted that they were already good Americans because they would neither demand nor accept such instruction. Now, apparently, we have Protestants demanding for their pastors the right, at the least, to advise them at election time. If these demands multiply, then a new, non-sectarian Know Nothingism might be in order. Someone just needs to think up a better name for it this time.