Many Americans seem to invoke a double standard on the question of when it is appropriate for religious groups or leaders to weigh in on matters of politics and public policy.
When a “reverend” this or a “father” that attempts to lend moral authority to a cause with which liberals agree, it’s not only deemed appropriate but welcomed. Yet when Focus on the Family and other religious groups speak up in defense of the judicial nominees being denied a vote by a handful of senators, or question whether these politicians are misusing the filibuster, it’s condemned as an effort by the “American Taliban” to tear down the wall separating church and state and impose a “theocracy.” Such political meddling is grounds for revoking the groups’ tax-exempt status, critics cry.
This represents a misreading of the U.S. Constitution and U.S. history, as well as the federal tax code, so off the mark it must result from ignorance, malice or blinkered partisanship. The Constitution prohibits the establishment of a state religion and bars the state from inhibiting the free exercise of religious thought. American history is replete with instances when religion was evoked to further political aims, starting with the revolution itself and including abolition, prohibition, the civil rights and pro-life movements. And a federal tax exemption bars recipients from involvement in partisanship, not politics.
The demand that Americans maintain a strict separation between their religious and political beliefs is not only impossible, since the two are inseparably linked, but unwarranted by any reading of our law or history. It’s taking the establishment clause to extremes to suggest, as some apparently do, that religious people aren’t as free to exercise their political beliefs as other Americans.
This selective and self-serving reading of the First Amendment shouldn’t surprise us, coming from those who would also grant federal judges the latitude to read their personal prejudices into the Constitution, rather than interpret it as written. By turning this into a debate about church and state, rather than the hijacking of Senate procedures to advance a partisan vendetta against the president’s judicial nominees, the obstructionists have managed to shift the focus away from where it should be — on exactly what makes these nominees unfit to serve on the federal bench and why they shouldn’t be granted an up-or-down vote by the Senate.
Returning the debate to where it belongs would show that the judicial obstructionists are standing on shaky ground. No nominee being held hostage is as “radical” or “extremist” as alleged. Nor is this particular use of the filibuster sanctioned by the Constitution or the framers. And it’s simply absurd to assert that reining in this procedural abuse will undermine the checks and balances or lead to a “tyranny of the majority.”
Yet when Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and other groups dare raise questions about why certain judicial nominees have been singled out, branded as “extremists” and denied a vote before the Senate, these groups are accused of exceeding their rights, participating in “unChristian” activities and attempting to usher in a theocracy.
Still others suggest that the groups should lose their tax-exempt status for speaking up. But tax exemption doesn’t bar such groups from sharing their views on matters of broad public policy with the public; it bars them from lobbying on specific pieces of legislation, from endorsing candidates for office and from involvement in partisan activities. It’s true, in this case at least, that their positions echo those of many members of the Republican Party. But unless collusion is demonstrated, that isn’t enough to challenge a tax exemption.
There are plenty of tax-exempt groups whose activities and “educational campaigns” make them de-facto auxiliaries of the Democratic Party. An argument might be made that their tax exemptions should be done away with as well. But at the moment, an across-the-board ban serves the interest of neither party, so the focus on Focus seems hypocritical and opportunistic.
Although we take seriously the need to maintain church-state separation, as well as checks and balances, we see no danger that these activities will lead to a theocracy in the United States. Much more likely, in our view, is a creeping tyranny of the secularists, in which the Constitution’s prohibition of a state religion will be used to purge all semblance of religious thought and speech not just from the proverbial public square, but from popular discourse.