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Colbert on Fresh Air

Stephen Colbert was on Fresh Air this past Thursday (as himself) to talk about his character's new book. The whole interview is worth a listen, but I found his comments on tomorrow's "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" to be the most interesting. Colbert had Pastor Jim Garlow on his show this week to talk about the initiative. It is aimed primarily at Evangelical pastors and encourages them to videotape themselves endorsing candidates, political platforms, and initiatives from the pulpit in violation of their own tax exempt status, which bars tax-exempt religious institutions from direct political speech to avoid being unwillingly subsidized by non-adhering tax-payers. This movement, which is also being framed as an act of civil disobedience, reminded me of the USCCB's "Fortnight for Freedom" as well as the LCWR's bus tour this summer. I thought Colbert's comments on the dangers of churches getting involved in the distracting and fractious world of politics, regardless of their perceived right to do so, were right on:

I think they should be able to endorse from the pulpit. Now whether or not they should get tax-exempt status is another thing, because that is the rest of us subsidizing their political speech. ... I think they should be able to do it, but I also think that it's a very dangerous thing to do not just for our politics, but it's also dangerous for the faith of people who are exercising that right. Because they seem to think that it's a one-way membrane that they'll get religion into our politics. But they're ignoring the fact that politics will come right back through that gate onto our religion. And if you actually have a political party that is this religion, or a political party that is that religion, I think that's a short road to the kind of religious civil war whether or not it's actually an armed war but religious civil war that we fled in Europe. America has avoided that. And I think our politics are so horrible these days. ... Why anyone would want that horrible tar on something as fragile as faith is beyond me.

Alternatively, I think the pivot away from politics and toward the New Evangelization, which Peter posts on below, is the right move. It would be nice to see our religious leaders talking about the joy of the Gospel rather than wasting all of their energy playing power politics---because, there really is no other kind.

About the Author

Eric Bugyis teaches Religious StudiesĀ at the University of Washington Tacoma.



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".. I think they should be able to endorse from the pulpit. Now whether or not they should get tax-exempt status is another thing, because that is the rest of us subsidizing their political speech. .."That's not exactly the problem -- it's fine to subsidize *everybody's* political speech because political speech as such is covered by the freedom of speech clause. The Constitution doesn't prohibit subsidizing political speech *as political*. The real problem is that the tax exemption of religious groups by the government causes the government to subsidize their *religious* expression. The tax exemption supplies them more money to proclaim a particular religion, but according to the Constitution the government is required to stay neutral about religion. It must not subsidize any religious argument. It doesn't make any difference whether all religious officials do it -- it is unconstitutional for any and for all to do so if their expression is subsidized by the government.

Ann: Yes, I think you are right. This is specific to *religious* speech injecting itself into politics, and the worry is that non-adherents would be subsidizing politically influential religious groups. So, it's at that strange intersection of religion and politics. But, as you say, the point is that it is *religious* and not necessarily that it is political. Though, the problem is that it is religious speech aspiring to be political. If it was just religious people speaking in the public sphere, that would not be a problem. It is because religious people are trying to sway the neutrality of the state in their favor that is the problem.A good example of this would be the ruling on Proposition 8, which (controversially, but, I think, rightly) invalidated the will of the majority on the grounds that it amounted to a religiously informed infringement on the rights of a minority. Thus, religious groups were trying to use the state to enforce their *religious* views concerning the immorality of same-sex marriage. The principle is, I think, that this kind of religiously-informed political action cannot be engaged in by religious groups that are simultaneously seeking to influence the state while remaining exempt from their obligations to the state (i.e. taxation). Cobert's more interesting point, though, is that such attempts to influence politics dirty religion with the kind of rancor that is endemic to our political debates, and it harms the faithful, who are having a hard enough time believing in God and living their faith let alone believing in the government and living their civic responsibilities. The genius of the separation of Church and State is that it is probably in the best interest of both religion and politics that they keep their distance from one another.

I tend to see the current tax-exempt status of religious groups as a kind of pressure cooker. Remove the pressure (tax-exempt status), and the influence of religious groups will be no greater than that exerted by other segments of society.Abolish LBJ's statute, let religious leaders endorse/condemn all they want, and see what happens. I, for one, would not support a religious group opposed to what I approve.Conflict is not comfortable, but it's healthy in the long run.

'Thus, religious groups were trying to use the state to enforce their *religious* views concerning the immorality of same-sex marriage."Eric -- I think this touches on an extremely important set of distinctions== 1. simply expressing a thought (Nazism disdains multi-culturalism),2. advocating a principle (It is good to support Nazis)3. trying to *persuade people to act* according to a principle, including religious ones (Vote for Hitler because Nazism is good)4.. commanding people what to do in the name of religion (Vote for Mitt, or you're not one of us anymore)Advocacy, persuasion, and commanding are quite different, and I'm not sure that the Constitution forbids persuasion *on the basis of common experience, not dogma*. That is just everyday participation in the public square by people who happen to have religious motives. (As far as I can see the religious motives for the participation are irrelevant to the legal issues). It is relying on government help when giving orders in the name of the religion that should obviously be prohibited, because it forces participation by other tax payers (by way of the tax exemptions).

Yes, I whole heartedly agree to the separation of church and state as so well laid out in the constitution. It seems it has not always been so, but on the other hand, over the years the country has adhered to it admirably. I just wanted to weigh in on Colbert's recent interview with Oprah where he revealed the tragedy of losing his Dad and 2 brothers in a plane crash. He then became the "funny man" trying to keep his mother's spirits up. What a touching story, and it's good that we as an audience are benefitting from his talent born out of tragedy.

Ann's right: it's not immoral, merely illegal. Even there, I wonder. Ought you to have the power to shut me up by giving me a dollar?

As a matter of principle (and overlooking for a moment the statutory history of the prohibition on partisan activity) the taxpayers support religious expressions by churches with tax-exempt status because the consensus long has been held in American life that religion is socially beneficial. The exemption is available to any religious group, and it does not imply any government endorsement of religion that goes any further than government expressing the view that churches do socially beneficial things, chiefly because they are not concerned primarily with the temporal world.Whatever else we can say about why the 1954 rule was enacted into law, the ban on partisan expressions does have the effect of offering some protection to the state and to churches. Is it so difficult to imagine, just to choose a hyperbolic hypothetical, the creation of the American Conservative Church? The First Amendment could bar no new prophet from expressing his or her newfound theology that seeks an America where good Christian values exist side by side with a limited government, or where congregants fulfill this eschatological vision through the sacramental acts of voting, campaign contributions, canvassing, etc. And, without the bar on political activity, it would be a tax-free enterprise since nothing in law would stop this overt political activity in a house of worship.This is admitted hyperbole. But before we dismiss it as ridiculous, recall how PAC's, 527 groups, and 501(c)(4) groups have been adapted to political ends because the law permitted it. To be able to do it with 501(c)(3) groups, churches, is a charlatan's dream.Could this conflation of political activity with religious worship be healthy for our politics? And, leaving that question aside, could it really be healthy for churches? I'd say no.This is why Colbert is correct in every way. To preserve the good that churches do for our souls, they must be insulated (especially in this hyper-partisan environment) from every appearance of partisanship that can undermine their message. To preserve the good they do in the social order, similarly, the bright line between political activity and socially-beneficial religious expressions must be preserved. Talk of overturning the ban on partisan expressions for 501(c)(3)'s is playing with fire.

"The real problem is that the tax exemption of religious groups by the government causes the government to subsidize their *religious* expression.""Ought you to have the power to shut me up by giving me a dollar?"I see (and agree with) Ann's point, that tax exemption frees up money that can be used to push a particular political agenda. Moreover, no one is getting a dollar to "shut up." Pastors are allowed to endorse whomever they wish personally and publicly, so long as they're not in the pulpit.

Whether or not religious speech is too partisan is an issue for adherents of the faith community to address, not the state.There was a thread awhile back where the Canadian Bishops asked Development and Peace, a Catholic sponsored group, to stop being so pointed in their criticism of the Harper Conservative government. I don't believe that the Conservative government pressed the bishop's on that point but the bishop's might have felt that this kind of speech was outside of the hash marks that they established. Religiously oriented people ALWAYS provide a moral compass for politics which by its very nature is amoral. The problem is not religion speaking in the public square, the problem is that religion can be seduced by Caesar's sword. As far as pastor's controlling their flock, in elections, that is myth. In my undergraduate studies, I had a professor whose research was in the area of the history of the Catholic church in Canada. According to him, there is no evidence, even in the late nineteenth century during the so called golden age of Catholicism replete with opulent clericalism, that the "uneducated" peasants marched in lockstep to what their pastor suggested. If they did, it was because the pastor was tapping into the prevailing political winds as opposed to creating them.

"Religiously oriented people ALWAYS provide a moral compass for politics which by its very nature is amoral."George D. --Amoral? What do you mean by that? It is my understanding that the English common law system was founded on what was believed to be the fact that when there are no explicit laws that judges must appeal to natural law, that is, the common understanding of what people think of as morally righ or wrong. True, there don't seem to be many theorists of common law who still appeal to natural law. But even the recent (1971) theory of justice of John Rawls aims to discover just what is the common understanding of what is fair. Not that he thinks that there is such a law apart from people's understanding of it. But he seems to recognize that law alone cannot justify itself. (Wants to have his cake and eat it, in other owrds.) And Rawls does go beyond the mere contract theory of law of Hobbes which justifies law by the mere agreement of the law-givers (who also are the governed).

Ann:I would distinguish law and statecraft although they are somewhat related. Laws and customs are always generally respected as having a guiding force and are consultative. Politics has mostly been associated with acquisition of power.Added to that, there is social science research that suggests that reason evolved as a weapon as opposed to a path to truth. I have no doubt that there were many philosophers, sages, and prophets who used reason to elevate themselves and humanity. However, even there, I am sure there was a mix. The Shaolin monastics in China became famous in the martial arts. And even Christian monks were sought out for their diplomatic advice., didn't Machiavelli once famously say the proper place for saints is the monastery?

George --Yes, there is social research that shows we aren't as rational as some have thought, and sometimes intuition does succeed better than reason (but only if reason has already done a lot of work on a subject). But beginning at least with Plato, most philosophers haven't had a very high opinion of our *use* of our rationality, with the exception of some of the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Surely, complaining about our use of rationality is one thing, while complaining about rationality itself is another. Let me recommend yet again the splendid new book by Daniel Kahneman, "Thinking Fast and Slow". It presents the new research you mention. Much of the research is Kahneman's own, and he got a Nobel prize for it. Very important, very readable. Right down your alley.In this week's NYT, Gary Gutting complains about Haidt's position about the value of reason: P. Lynch also complained about Haidt's position earlier:, Haidt answers Gutting and Lynch. THE STONE - Opinionator - NYTimes.comAs I see it, while Haidt does admit in his reply to them that reason has some value sometimes, he is more trusting of judgments based on feeling -- see in Lynch's article on how Haidt prefers emotion to reason! Won't do. Won't do. Haidt thinks that evolution produced reason so we could persuade those in our own tribes and using reason to try to persuade those outside of our tribe is almost always doomed to failure. But if reasoning is valid within the tribe, it is valid outside of the tribe. Granted, outsiders are less likely to be persuaded by our reasons, but if our reasoning is sound outsiders *should* be persuaded -- if they know what's good for them. All Haidt shows is that if you wan't to persuade an outsider of the rightness of your position, you had best have some rhetoric going for you as well as sound arguments.(Weird, how some evolutionists seem to make evolution the answer to questions about which it is irrelevant. Bad science.)

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