Matt Bevin and the Political Pulpit Skip to content

Matt Bevin and the Political Pulpit

4 min read

A leaked video appears to show Governor Matt Bevin encouraging pastors to ignore Federal law and bring politics into the pulpit. Is this “political pulpit” as over-the-line as it appears, or could there be another way of looking at it?

Being Prophetic Is Part of the Job.

One of the roles of a good religious leader (in almost every faith tradition) is to be a prophetic voice. And no, we’re not talking about foretelling the future; we’re talking about “forth-telling” the truth about what God thinks is important to both the followers of God and to the general population.

Take Amos, for example, when he tells the religious that God is sick of their religion.

prophet photo
Photo by Boston Public Library

I can’t stand your religious meetings.
    I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
    your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
    your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
    When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
    I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
    That’s what I want. That’s all I want.

(Amos 5: 21-24, The Message)

Speaking the prophetic word means calling out what is wrong in society, and calling out leaders who allow it. From that standpoint, there is nothing wrong with that part of the Governor’s message.

There IS a problem, of course, in defining exactly what God might be unhappy about these days. For most of the pastors at that secret, invitation-only, unpublicized event, their list probably begins with Gay People, followed closely by Abortion, Welfare, and Hillary Clinton.

My list, on the other hand, would include Greed, Injustice, Racism, Sexism, Xenophobia, Warmongering, Inequality, and Hatred. (Many of which, by the way, are talked about by the Old Testament prophets, and by Jesus himself.)

So, calling on religious leaders to speak plainly about good and not-good is just asking them to do their job. But …

Being Prophetic Can Quickly Morph Into Being Partisan

One of the dangers of preaching is the unlimited power you have to say something stupid, clueless, or hateful. It’s like live television with a studio audience, except that most of those people are long-time members of the audience and you know they like to hear you speak. (Why else would they show up each week?) This can lead to Trumpism-In-The-Pulpit – saying things to get the expected reaction.

It is a slippery slope from preaching against gay rights, for example, to preaching against those who support gay rights. It is a slippery slope from preaching in favor of corporate greed, for example, to saying “And you know who wants to raise your taxes!” Dog whistles in the pulpit are still dog whistles, and jokes and winks in the pulpit carry the message just as well as lapel buttons and bumper stickers.

Does a religious leader have to say the words “Vote for Smith” out loud to tell the congregants to vote for Smith? Of course not. All families have inside sayings and code words, and everyone knows what’s being said.

Some religious leaders, though, aren’t satisfied even with this; they want to actually tell their congregants whom to vote for, especially if they already tell people how to run the rest of their lives. Which leads us to this:

The Governor Went Over the Line

As you can tell from the first section above, I was somewhat sympathetic to the call to religious leaders to speak about values in our society, even though I thought the context (and many of the values) were wrong. But then we got to the part where the elected governor of our state told a group of religious leaders to ignore Federal law.

This is wrong. For a governor to do it is doubly wrong. For supposed “people of God” to agree is more wrong still.

So that we’re all clear on this, let’s quote the IRS on the meaning of the Johnson Amendment:

“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.”

Governor Bevin tells his audience to ignore this law. Obviously, then, he is telling them to be actively partisan. He is telling them to actively support individual candidates, from the pulpit, and not to worry about the fallout. He is encouraging them to create a “political pulpit.”

THIS is the problem with his message. If he had stopped at “preach the truth boldly” he would have been okay. If he had talked about individual issues, he would have been okay. But for a sitting governor (elected to serve ALL the people) to encourage pastors (called to serve ALL the people) to break the law and to take sides in an election, is so far over the line that it boggles the mind.

Pastors and religious leaders – Don’t take the Governor’s advice to bring politics into the pulpit. You have been entrusted with a stewardship; don’t throw it away for a mess of pottage.

Governor – I understand that your faith informs much of what you do. That doesn’t excuse breaking the law, or encouraging others to break the law. There are boundaries in your role; please take some time to find them.

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Photo by amslerPIX

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