A recent poll commissioned by the Family Research Council found that 61 percent of Americans agree that pastors and churches should challenge the Obama administration when religious liberty issues are at stake. That being the case, then why are so many pastors afraid to speak up on these issues from the pulpit?
The poll, conducted February 20-23 by the polling company, inc./WomanTrend, surveyed 1,000 people over the age of 18 and called both landline and cell phones. Of the 61 percent in agreement, 41 percent strongly agreed, compared to the 28 percent who disagreed. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percent.
The findings were presented during a press conference I attended at the National Religious Broadcasters annual convention in Nashville earlier this week and I was able to speak with three pastors who are in the trenches of the religious liberty battle.
Tony Perkins, president of FRC presented the results and was joined by Dr. Robert Jeffress, Sr. Pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas and Pastor Rafael Cruz, the director of Purifying Fire Ministries and someone who has experienced persecution himself before he and his family escaped Cuba in 1957.
The reason is poll is significant is two-fold.
First, a growing number of pastors have grown leery of mentioning civic or political issues from the pulpit because of threats from groups such as the Americans United For the Separation of Church and State. Barry Lynn, the group's leader, routinely sends out letters informing pastors that if they cross the boundary between "church and state," they will have their non-profit status revoked.
Here is an example of a letter Lynn sent to churches during a recent election cycle:
"Dear Religious Leader….The First Amendment protects the right of all Americans, religious leaders included, to speak out on religious, moral and political issues."
A very accurate statement I might add. But here's where it gets sticky for many pastors.
"However, houses of worship…are barred from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office and may not intervene directly or indirectly in partisan campaigns. Any activity designed to influence the outcome of a partisan election can be construed as intervention. If the IRS determines that your house of worship has engaged in unlawful intervention, it can revoke the institution's tax-exempt status or levy significant fines on the hour of worship or its leaders."
But before we go any further we need to clarify what the law says.
Churches cannot corporately endorse a candidate. In other words, the Main Street Baptist or Methodist church cannot endorse Barack Obama for president (although I have seen predominately black churches in Memphis endorse former Congressman Harold Ford and Harold Ford, Jr. from their pulpits).
Churches cannot give money to candidates or political parties, nor should they. However, nothing in the law prohibits a pastor from personally endorsing a candidate from the pulpit contrary to how some read the law.
Even though such bully tactics often convince pastors they cannot utter a word about government or civic issues, the good news is not one single church – not one – has lost their status as a result of these threats. Yet Lynn sends them like clock work every election cycle.
Perkins says policies of the Obama administration have continued to threatened religious liberties but this poll demonstrates that people understand that a substantial number of Americans want pastors to take a stand and lead on these issues.
"Bear in mind this is 61 percent of all Americans, some of whom never darken the doors of a church – say pastors should push-back on threats being made by this administration," explained Perkins. "It's still engrained in the DNA of Americans that protecting religious liberties are our first priority."
You may be thinking the name Cruz rings and bell and it should. The elder Cruz is also the father of U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and is passionate on the issue of a pastor's right and responsibility in the pulpit.
This brings me to my second point and that is pastors and the church are not only allowed to address civic and government issues, but they are directed to do so when civil law violates God's law. The thirteenth chapter of Romans, specifically verse's 1-7 direct us to submit to the government. We must remember that only applies when civic law does not infringe upon God's law. Abortion and same-sex marriage are two prime examples.
And then there is the whole separation of church-state stuff.
"This poll is collaborating evidence for what we are doing in trying to encourage pastors," said Cruz. "Jesus said we are the light of the world. Unfortunately too many pastors have been intimidated by a misunderstanding of separation of church and state, which is not found in the constitution or the Declaration of Independence. As a result of that, a large percentage of pastors have failed to lead the flock."
Cruz also added that of the 65 million evangelicals in America, only 50 percent are registered to vote and of that number, only 50 actually vote on a consistent basis. That means roughly, 3 out of 4 Christians are not participating in the election process.
"We have to become engaged, added Cruz. We are to be light in every area including the arts, entertainment and yes government."
"When Sen. Lyndon Johnson had a couple of Texas churches challenge him one election, he passed what was known as the Johnson amendment and basically said no 501(c)(3) organization can speak for or against any candidate for public office," said Cruz.
"The amendment is very restrictive but the pastors have taken that to mean they cannot speak to anything in the public or political arena. In spite of the fact that over 3000 churches have participated in a program know as Pulpit Freedom Church, which directly challenges the Johnson amendment, even to the point of an individual pastor endorsing a candidate from the pulpit and then sending a tape to the IRS. But not one single church has lost their status. It's nothing but a paper tiger."
When I asked Cruz why so many pastors are reluctant or even fearful to speak out on government and political issues, he was quick to respond.
"Pastors are very cautious of being politically correct and more concerned with pleasing people. Their main concern should be pleasing God. We need to be biblically correct and not politically correct."
Jeffress, who has received several letters from Lynn's group and has even debated him, was even more direct in his remarks.
"No president has launched an attack on religious liberty more than President Barack Obama and those who share his anti-Christian views", he stated. "And if pastors continue to stay AWOL in this battle as they have in similar ones, then we will lose this battle."
"I believe there is another reason pastor are unwilling to stand up. Pastors have constructed a theology that their job is to speak to their own people. That to use their position to influence non-Christians is un-American and may be illegal. But you look at the Old and New Testament, prophets and even Jesus; they didn't just speak to God's own people. They were willing to confront an ungodly culture and ungodly leaders and say without stuttering or stammering, thus sayeth the Lord."
"I don't understand why it's not okay for a country that was founded as a Christian nation to surrender the control and direction of this country to ungodly, immoral infidels who hate God. I don't understand how we have come to this place where we say that is the theology correct thing to do. Until pastors have a change in their thinking we are never going to see this thing turn around."
Perkins added that while we may focus on those afraid to speak up, there are pastors who are speaking out and going through what he calls, "divine pruning," and seeing tremendous growth as a result. He says Lynn and his group are simply trying to intimidate pastors to keep such growth in check.
In spite of the good news of this poll, Jeffress takes a pessimistic view of the future.
"It won't be too long before some churches will lose their status and maybe even some of us will go to jail," he exclaimed. "I predict the Supreme Court will ultimately rule that churches and pastors speaking out on issues such as homosexuality will be labeled 'hate' speech. I expect to see that day during my lifetime."
It's obvious Perkins, Jeffress and Cruz are passionate about this issue and are willing to fight tooth and nail for a pastor's right to speak on issues of government. I applaud their work and pray that pastors will seek God's will on how and when they speak the truth to their flocks.
Perkins is optimistic the future is a bit brighter and offers this to his detractors.
"You will not see a white flag flying outside the FRC," he noted. "I believe that if pastors will stand and preach the word from a redemptive heart, wanting to see men, women and children come to Christ, and if pastors stand together that government will not move against them – if they stand together – and that's the 'if'."