April 1, 2004

Candidates are human, but ballot measures are divine

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at April 1, 2004 5:17 PM

Yesterday I ran across this post on American Street discussing the increasing involvement of churches in politics (an easy incitement to rant for me).

Churches on both the left and the right are getting more and more involved in the political process. That isnít a bad thing (as long as the churches on the left win). The United Church of Christ is offering a new web site on how churches can become involved in the political process and still adhere to IRS laws for non-profits. Churches cannot, for example, endorse political candidates and maintain their tax exempt status. Yet churches can endorse ballot measures or reversely urge their congregants to oppose measures.

I'm really happy for the Bizarro America where the the left-wing churches turn out a massive liberal vote and usher in a new age of tolerance and civil rights. But here in this reality, the vast majority of churches are socially conservative; there's no way the churches on the left can "win". An overall increase in church involvement is on balance bad news for gay rights, reproductive rights, science education and a number of other liberal causes. So in this pragmatic sense this is very much a bad thing.

A second and more general reason this is bad, even in Bizarro America with its liberal churches, is that religion is simply not a good basis for policy formulation. Even if some churches occasionally take the right position on some issues, there's still no reason to believe that the sacred texts of the various religions were written by people expert on policymaking, especially 20 centuries removed. Nor do we think that the church leaders interpreting such texts should be considered particularly wise in areas like tax law or energy policy, especially when they've already demonstrated poor judgement by going into the clergy in the first place. (Ok, that was a cheap shot.) Now, I freely admit that it will be impossible in most cases to convince a religious person that this argument is correct, but that doesn't make it any less accurate.

And what's up with churches being allowed to endorse positions on ballot measures? Is this just a loophole, or is it somehow substantially different from endorsing a candidate for office? It seems to me that part of the deal with granting tax-exempt status is that churches stay out of the political process entirely. I can see that if a preacher declares that "it is God's law that marriage is between a man and a woman", this is not very different from an endorsement of California Proposition 22 (from March 2000) - ballot measures cover single issues and churches are certainly allowed to take positions on single issues. On the other hand, I do think there is a line, albeit a fine one, to be drawn between statements like the above and "Jesus demands you vote yes on 22". Surely we can, and should, prohibit the latter kind of endorsement for tax-exempt churches.

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