Politics from the Pulpit: A good idea or a bad mix?
To watch Tim Scott's Seacoast sermon, or listen to an audio version, go to www.seacoast.org/?p=959
Where to draw the line?
It probably wasn't illegal, but some concerned churchgoers and pastors are questioning the wisdom of U.S. Rep. Tim Scott's recent sermon at Seacoast Church during which he criticized national economic policy.
In the 40-minute sermon, devoted to faith, life and politics in roughly equal measure, the Charleston Republican took aim at the federal government's deficit spending, comparing it to a personal household budget that relies on "a credit card drawer."
The message contained no explicit reference to individual policy makers or political parties in Washington, but advanced a perspective often heard from Republicans and right-leaning pundits -- that government spending is out of control.
The sermon, delivered at Seacoast's Mount Pleasant campus, was recorded on video and had the potential to reach thousands of the church's members, and any non-member who sought out the video online.
It was part of a series launched at Seacoast called "Trending," which examines relevant contemporary issues.
Scott, a member of Seacoast for 14 years and a friend of its senior pastor, Greg Surratt, is one of several elected officials and candidates for public office who in recent months have injected religion into politics and vice versa.
The mixing of the two makes sense to some who feel God and country are intertwined, but troubles others who say an emphasis by politicians on religion cheapens faith and threatens a secular society based on the rule of law.
And as campaign season gains momentum, some candidates are likely to address congregations and appeal to religious sentiment.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, an evangelical Methodist, has extolled the power of prayer, designating three days in April as "Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas" in an attempt to end the state's terrible drought.
He proclaimed Aug. 6 a Day of Prayer and Fasting, and lent his name to a massive, Christian-only prayer meeting in Houston hosted by the American Family Association.
"With the economy in trouble, communities in crisis and people adrift in a sea of moral relativism, we need God's help," he said.
Perry is skeptical about the science of climate change and evolution, and has opposed gay marriage and abortion.
In 2005, at an evangelical school in Forth Worth, he signed a bill limiting late-term abortions and requiring girls under the age of 18 who procure abortions to notify their parents.
Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann also has made a point of emphasizing her Christian faith.
Recently, she told New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza about her born-again experience during high school.
"It was very helpful to join the prayer group," she said. "That's when I gave my life over to God, and it was a life-changing experience for me to recognize that I wanted him to be in control of my life rather than me being in control of my life."
Bachmann and her husband Marcus own a Christian counseling practice in Minnesota, Bachmann & Associates.
Role of government
For Scott, religion and public life are inseparable.
In an opening prayer at Seacoast, Scott said:
"God, I believe that our future is far more important than our past, and I believe that we are at a crossroads and you have called all of us, God, to be a part of the process, a part of the solution, to bringing forth a new day in America."
A little later, he bemoaned the country's financial condition, blaming pride and "the ability to spend money we don't have, buying things we cannot afford, trying to impress a world that still seems fairly unimpressed."
He went on to compare federal deficit spending to household spending that relies on "a credit card drawer" and lots of debt.
"And we're paying only our interest, and we just asked for a credit increase. That's where we are."
Opinions among economists are divided, of course, but many, such as Nobel laureates Joseph Stieglitz and Paul Krugman, as well as other Keynesian thinkers of the left, have argued that the nation's faltering economic recovery is a result of too little government spending, not too much.
"For me ... to a large extent, it's the foundation on which I stand," Scott said later in an interview, adding that he sees the world through a Christian lens and confronts life's challenges with "solutions I found in the Bible -- not with perfect application, really (it's) imperfect, but I try to apply God's word to everything. ...
"The worst thing you can do is politicize your religion, but the second worst thing is not to live out your faith."
Religion must be protected from government, but government needs no protection from religion, Scott said.
"There's no doubt our founding fathers had a strong conviction about our Judeo-Christian foundation," he said.
Church, he said, is a good place to talk about national political issues, but not where a debate ought to ensue. Church is for illumination, and the context for any discussion of politics should be scriptural, Scott said.
"You don't need partisan politics; you don't even need my opinion in there," he said. "You just match the issue to Scripture."
Religion has exercised its influence on politics for centuries. In the 20th century, Jerry Falwell and other prominent evangelicals helped to propel social issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, into the political arena.
His Moral Majority was a popular movement that pushed public discourse to the right, and Falwell often endorsed Republican candidates publicly.
For decades, Billy Graham consulted with presidents, offering counsel and friendship, even as he was busy leading his many evangelistic crusades.
And Pat Robertson, a well-known television evangelist and son of a U.S. senator, ran for president of the United States in 1988.
Kurt Kehlenbeck, a member of Seacoast since 2000, said political discourse in church makes him uncomfortable. Early on, he said, Seacoast was about acceptance, forgiveness and fellowship.
In recent years, as the church has grown to a membership that exceeds 30,000 and established six other campuses, the tone has shifted, becoming more political and tinged with conservative rhetoric, Kehlenbeck said.
He is a member of one of Seacoast's "small groups," which convene to discuss issues raised in church, and was alarmed recently when a mention of Scott prompted a colleague to accuse the Democrats of ruining the country.
"The small group gave me the feeling that there was all this animosity," he said.
When he watched Scott's sermon video, his discomfort grew.
The video introduction is a slick montage that includes titles such as "Government Responsibility" and images of protester signs that say "America is Doomed" and "God Hates Obama," possibly meant to indicate not the church's view but the emotion-laden national political discourse.
"I don't really think that belongs in church," Kehlenbeck said. "It's just not right that a church leans one way or the other. And that's what I saw in that video."
Surratt, Seacoast's senior pastor, said partisanship was not the intent. The "Trending" series of Sunday morning messages is the church's attempt to address big religious, social and economic issues head-on, he said.
"I think that the church should have a voice in world view stuff," Surratt said. Politicians must not get endorsements from church officials, "but the issues we do need to address."
Other topics in the series include Afterlife, Heaven, Hell, Remembering 9/11, and economics. That last sermon was delivered by church member and business executive Jack Hoey, with a focus on how to treat the poor, and probably provided some balance to Scott's message, Surratt said.
(Hoey has donated money to the Republican Party and some of its candidates, according to campaignmoney.com.)
The idea to include a sermon on the national budget seemed to fit the Trending series well, Surratt said.
"I said (to Scott), 'Give us an insider view on the politics of the budget issue, but I want it nonpartisan, as nonpartisan as you can,' " Surratt said. "It was a risk, in a sense, but I think there ought to be Democrats and Republicans worshipping together, disagreeing amicably."
Scott was elected to the U.S. House last November, and Seacoast officials never have endorsed him, and never will, Surratt said.
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said it's not uncommon for some conservatives to "(weave) theology and proof texts from the Christian Bible" through their political arguments, as Scott did at Seacoast.
"He was making sure that people understood that when he got to the political stuff it would be grounded in his version of theology," Lynn said.
While Scott's sermon raises the issue of fairness -- will Seacoast give the pulpit to a liberal Democrat who wants to talk about deficit spending and government responsibility? -- it was not a First Amendment violation, Lynn said.
"I would not say that giving over the pulpit to (a politician) is a common occurrence, (though) it does happen," he said. "Most pastors would not want even the appearance of an endorsement. They would not do this. Although the fact that (Scott) is a church member makes it not as strange."
It was pretty strange to the Rev. Joseph Darby, senior pastor of Morris Brown AME Church.
Darby, a politically active community leader, said he won't tolerate partisanship in church, especially on Sunday morning. Politicians are welcome to visit Morris Brown, and will be treated with respect and invited to greet the congregation, but that's about it, Darby said.
Espousing a political view from the pulpit "cheapens the religion," he said.
"The church has an obligation to address moral issues of public life and public policy, but Sunday morning is no time to do it," Darby said. "Sunday is to praise the Lord, and nothing should get in the way of that."
The Rev. Robert Wallace, pastor of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in downtown Charleston, said politics can be dangerous territory for the church if it is approached in a partisan manner. But, he said, consider the Latin root of the word, polis: the people. "With that in mind, the church belongs in the public sector," he said.
Believers see a mission in God's creation, Wallace said.
But for Wallace, the mission of creation primarily concerns social justice, he said, citing the fourth Commandment, to keep the Sabbath day holy. This rule, he said, is about respecting not only God but also the farmers, servants and animals employed or owned by the more fortunate.
The pulpit is best for asking questions and getting people to think, not for promoting a concrete political agenda, Wallace said. And an important question to ask is whether our value system ought to be re-examined.
"If my desire is to sway the public, people change their point of view not from input but from dialogue," he said.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Visit him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.
National debt increases since 1981:
Reagan (Jan. 1981 - Jan. 1989) 189% increase
G. H. W. Bush (Jan. 1989 - Jan. 1993) 55% increase
Clinton (Jan. 1993 - Jan. 2001) 36% increase
G. W. Bush (Jan. 2001 - Jan. 2009) 86% increase
Obama (Jan. 2009 - September 2011) 39% increase
These are dollar increases, not increases as a percentage of GDP.
Statement: "Almost half of our debt is owned by foreign countries." -- Tim Scott
Fact: As of August 2011, Americans owned 54 percent of the U.S. public debt and 69 percent of the total debt, which includes money the U.S. government owes itself. Nearly $10 trillion in U.S. debt is owned by Americans; about $4.5 trillion is owned by foreigners.
More than 200 years of court rulings have helped to strengthen the wall separating church and state in the U.S., but key questions remain: Does freedom of religion include the right to advance a political agenda? Should government avoid or limit public religious discourse, or can it acknowledge the role of God in society? And if God can be acknowledged by government officials, what part of his message should be emphasized publicly? Sin and salvation? Social justice?
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
'Wall of Separation'
The idea that church and state ought to be separate and distinct, with little or no overlap, comes from Thomas Jefferson. Baptists in Connecticut wrote the new president in October 1801 expressing concern that their state's constitution contained no explicit protection of religious liberty or prohibition of state-established religion. Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association asserting his views:
"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State."
Total U.S. household debt (as of June 30): $11.4 trillion
Aggregate credit card limits: $60 billion
Delinquent consumer debt: $1.1 trillion
Current national debt: $14 trillion
Ignoring Internal Revenue Service rules to maintain tax-exempt status is risky.
The Landmark Church in Binghamton, N.Y., got in trouble with the IRS after it placed a full-page ad with the headline "Christians Beware" in USA Today and the Washington Times just four days before the 1992 presidential election, warning Christians about Bill Clinton.
Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a Methodist organization that owns the pavilion property in New Jersey, lost part of its tax-exempt status in 2007 when it refused to allow two lesbian couples to hold civil union ceremonies at the Boardwalk Pavilion.
In 2006, the IRS sent notices to more than 15,000 tax-exempt organizations, including churches, warning against improper campaigning. And over the years, hundreds of churches have been investigated by the agency.
The agency's rule concerning charities and politics follows:
"Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.
"Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances. For example, certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner.
"On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention."