Yesterday was “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” an annual event sponsored by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a large Religious Right legal group, during which members of the clergy are urged to violate federal law by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office from the pulpit.
It’s always difficult to tell what exactly goes on during this day. In years past, ADF has asserted that thousands of pastors participated. But there’s no way to verify these numbers, and in some cases, the religious leaders may have merely discussed political issues, which is permitted.
In a normal year, we’d see churches that lean to the right endorsing Republicans for president, U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives and for state and local races. But this is not a normal year. The rise of Donald Trump as the GOP standard-bearer has alarmed many people, including the leaders of some houses of worship that are more closely identified with progressive politics. Some of them are considering blasting Trump from the pulpit.
The Washington Post yesterday reported on a number of rabbis in the Washington, D.C., area who are considering how to deal with Trump during the High Holy Days, which began yesterday.
The Post noted that the question of how to deal with Trump has been a hot topic for many rabbis on social media and other forums. In an opinion column published in an Israeli newspaper, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, bluntly suggested, “Perhaps it is time for rabbis to put the usual niceties aside, recognize the emergency nature of our situation, and come out for Hillary on the holidays.”
At the conclusion of the column, however, Yoffie recommended a sermon focused on principles, not candidates. Indeed, this is the way to go. Rabbis and other religious leaders who are concerned about Trump’s views can discuss those issues – racism, immigration, women’s rights, religious freedom, etc. – without handing down a specific endorsement of a candidate or expressing opposition to one.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs put it well. “It’s a moment to try and tilt the world to the most profound Jewish values,” he said. “I don’t have to weigh in and say a candidate’s name to say that the issues that matter most to our community are on the line. I think that could not be more evident.”
A recent poll showed that an overwhelming percentage of Americans oppose partisan politicking emanating from the pulpit. Americans are comfortable with a thought-provoking sermon that challenges them to put their values into action, but they don’t attend a religious service to get a list of political endorsements.
Americans United is hard at work standing up to those who would politicize our nation’s houses of worship. We just completed a Week of Action designed to educate clergy and laypeople about the dangers of pulpit politicking, and a few weeks ago, we mailed letters to 100,000 houses of worship reminding pastors that they need to remain officially non-partisan. (We know those letters are having an effect because we’re already getting outraged emails and calls from right-wing pastors.)
And don’t forget, AU is sponsoring a petition urging the Internal Revenue Service to crack down on houses of worship and religious non-profits that violate the law. You can sign it here.
These are indeed unusual political times in America. Many members of the clergy feel compelled to respond. They can do that without breaking the law.