What Sunday IS this?

Today is variously Pulpit Freedom Sunday 2013 or, in relevant contrast, the 6th Sunday of Pascha, the “Sunday of the Blind Man.”

I have mixed feelings about ADF (Alliance Defending Freedom, f/k/a Alliance Defense Fund), a sort of Conservative Christian counterpart to the ACLU, with which I have been affiliated on and off for 11 years because of their religious freedom advocacy. Pulpit Freedom Sunday has been a particular sticking point for me.

First, it has been self-consciously promoted as an act of provocation to topple the “Johnson Amendment.” The IRS explains:

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.

The Internal Revenue Service provides resources to exempt organizations and the public to help them understand the prohibition. As part of its examination program, the IRS also monitors whether organizations are complying with the prohibition.

A circular way of objecting to Pulpit Freedom Sunday would be to say that churches have no right to try to change the law because of the famed wall of separation between church and state. Like I say: circular.

But my argument is religious: consciously planning to engage in coordinated political provocation on a particular Sunday seems to me a mockery of the notion that pastors should be led by the Holy Spirit to preach what their particular congregations need to hear.

Second, the notion that pastors should be led by the Holy Spirit to preach what their particular congregations need to hear itself reflects an unconsciously sectarian view of the church and its unity. Where’s the lectionary? Where’s the assurance that God’s whole counsel, not just the pastor’s particular hobby horses, get visited and inculcated?

In other words, I don’t see how a liturgical and ecclesial Church can participate in the supposedly ecumenical Pulpit Freedom Sunday, as pastors and priests in such Churches should be preaching on themes set by the Church’s lectionary.

Today is Pulpit Freedom Sunday 2013. ADF at least abandons the conscious provocation part this year, encouraging sermons on “the Truth about God’s design for marriage. But I’m happy to say that my Church won’t be joining 1100 sundry co-conspirators participating, perhaps in part because this is the 6th Sunday of Pascha, the “Sunday of the Blind Man,” in every (Orthodox, but that goes without saying) Church in the world, and it would be pastoral malpractice to hijack the prescribed Gospel reading and twist it into something about marriage.

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On a related note, my conversion to Orthodox Christianity has occasioned a greater appreciation for just how great has been the hegemony of evangelical Protestantism in American life – a point I heard made by observant Roman Catholics before I was able to see the truth of it.

I think I first became aware of evangelical hegemony at Urbana 70 when someone had the temerity to suggest that a parachurch organization had no business serving communion in a basketball stadium on New Years Eve just because we’d all been having a swell adolescent Kum-Ba-Ya interlude for a couple of days. The organizers appointed Rev. John R.W. Stott, the most ecclesial of our speakers, to fumble the answer to that question. Obviously, though, the point stuck at least in the back of my mind, to come forward decades later.

I finally dropped my membership in the Christian Legal Society, for instance (a pretty unpolitical group that thought it was being inclusive and ecumenical) because the evangelical hegemony was incorrigible and a constant irritant.

That I found it so irritating may say more about my own sinfulness than about their oblivious sectarianism, but there comes a point when adiapohora like ‘fellowshipping” with sectarian lawyers who consider themselves mere Christians just isn’t worth the irritation.

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.