I CAN’T TELL YOU how surprised and shocked I was -- and how disappointed -- when All Saints Church was informed that the sermon I preached on Oct. 31, 2004, might have constituted an impermissible intervention into a political campaign under the Internal Revenue Code.
I gave the sermon on the Sunday before the presidential election. It was called, “If Jesus Debated Sen. Kerry and President Bush.” In it, I took great care to say that I did not want to tell people how to vote, but that I was challenging them to go into the voting booth on Tuesday taking with them all that they knew about Jesus, the peacemaker. To take all that Jesus meant to them and then vote their deepest values.
No one from the IRS attended my sermon, to my knowledge. The agency apparently saw an article about it in The Times the following day. The Times described it as “an indictment of the Bush administration’s policies on Iraq” and noted that I had criticized the drive to develop more nuclear weapons and described tax cuts that benefited the rich as “inimical to the values of Jesus.” Based on that, the IRS made a subjective determination that the sermon implicitly opposed one candidate and endorsed another.
During my 28 years as rector of All Saints Church, I often preached sermons that touched upon what some would characterize as “political” issues. So many of the political issues that we confront today coincide with deeply held, core religious beliefs: issues relating to marriage, family, community and yes, even war and foreign policy.
It seems to me that fundamentally moral issues, such as peace and the alleviation of poverty, are indisputably the province of church pulpits, regardless of which politicians are debating that week or where a Sunday happens to fall in an election cycle. My successor, Ed Bacon, has continued this tradition of proclaiming a theologically based commitment to alleviating poverty and promoting peace and social justice.
An IRS audit will not diminish the prophetic ministry of All Saints Church. Peace and the alleviation of poverty are core values of the congregation. If we were to allow the IRS to silence us, we would lose our integrity and the very soul of our ministry. That will not happen.
Some fear that the threats of the IRS and the publicity surrounding my sermon will have a chilling effect on other churches that would like to speak out for peace in this war-fractured world. Perhaps it will for a few.
But I think many more will take courage from this story and find ways to be true to the core values of their faith. They will find creative ways to proclaim that religious communities must stop blessing war and violence. I am heartened by the outpouring of support that All Saints has already received from many in the faith community whose beliefs span a wide spectrum. They realize this matter involves 1st Amendment principles we all hold dear.
My sermon did not cross the line that violates the tax laws governing churches. The IRS apparently is making a subjective determination that I implicitly opposed one candidate and endorsed the other. Its analysis ignores the fact that I explicitly stated that I was not advising anyone how to vote.
I recognize that churches must comply with the tax law. When I was rector of All Saints Church, we diligently enforced a policy against campaign intervention. Bacon has carefully continued this policy.
Some might argue that religious communities should stay out of politics altogether. But that would render our message of core moral values -- the values that Jesus taught us -- irrelevant. The fact is, all life is arguably political. For example, Jesus says to us: “Heal the sick.” Thus, when we address the desperate health needs in the nation and across the planet, this is at once a moral and a political issue.
The rightful role of communities of faith is not to speak and act as though God is in the pocket of the Democratic or Republican parties. Our role is to boldly proclaim the biblical themes of justice for all, peace on Earth, the sacredness of all life and the preciousness and fragility of the environment.