Have you heard about the preacher in Sioux City that recently challenged the IRS to sue him for openly preaching against the Iowa Supreme Court Justices retainer, and then invited 100 ministers around Iowa to join him? He wanted the opportunity to force the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, so it could overturn an unconstitutional tax law. Under it all non-profits, including churches, are currently restricted by the IRS from endorsing a particular political candidate or platform or they risk losing of their tax-exempt status. Before this law was passed in 1954, churches were free to speak from the pulpit on any matter of things. What triggered the change? A certain Senator named Lyndon Johnson was facing a particularly brutal reelection, receiving intense criticism from two non-profits in particular. So, using his legislative authority, he inserted a new amendment into the IRS tax code that revoked a non-profit’s tax exemption if it ever chose to engage in political speech. At the stroke of a pen, and with little debate on either side of the political aisle, the free speech of preachers was sacrificed on the altar of the federal tax cut.
This is not the first time a government found the clergy dangerous to their power. In the 18th century, King George attempted to use the entire British army to silence dissent. During colonial times, American preachers were the fiercest endorsers of independence and personal liberty. They opposed the idea of the divine right of kings, and taught from their pulpits that our rights come from the God of the Bible and not the government. Loyalists to the Crown nicknamed these preachers, both black and white (yes, there were black preachers during colonial times), the “Black Regiment”, due to the black robes they all wore when speaking from the pulpit. Many local British leaders said at the time that if it were not for the Black Regiment, America would still be colonies. In fact, many churches of all denominations were burnt down by the advancing British armies in an attempt to silence the threat.
Early American preachers so adamantly believed in the idea that individual liberty was part of God’s natural law that most of the leaders in the Continental Army during the American Revolution were members of the clergy. When George Washington asked Lutheran pastor Rev. John Muhlenberg to raise a regiment of volunteers to fight, Muhlenberg gladly agreed. Before leaving to join Washington’s army, he delivered a powerful sermon from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 that concluded with these words: “The Bible tells us there is a time for all things and there is a time to preach and a time to pray but the time for me to preach has passed away, and there is a time to fight, and that time has come now. Now is the time to fight! Call for recruits! Sound the drums!” Muhlenberg then took off his clerical robe to reveal the uniform of a Virginia Colonel. He grabbed his musket from behind the pulpit, put on his Colonel’s hat, and marched down the aisle off to war, recruiting over a 100 of his own congregation to join him.
Many of the ideas that were preached from these early American pulpits made it into the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The fact that the IRS is currently being used to threaten the freedom of speech of the clergy is an affront to the very foundation of American liberty itself! It is also a testament of how threatening the church is still seen by those in power. Therefore, I agree with the Sioux City pastor in his stand against an unconstitutional law, proposed and passed by a thin-skinned politician in 1954. It is time that we do the same, and encourage and support our preachers as the first righteous bulwark against any ungodly encroachment on our liberty.
Freedom has always come at a blood-price. Our founders paid for it, our military continues to pay for it, and our God paid for it with His son Jesus. America’s founding preachers took on the entire British army. Our military takes on the terrorists. Jesus took on Satan and Death itself. Yet we will stand weak-kneed and allow the IRS to dictate what we can and cannot say in our churches? If so, what does that say about us and our priorities? Whom then do we truly serve? Whom then do we truly fear?
“If there is a decay of conscience, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the public press lacks moral discernment, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the church is degenerate and worldly, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the world loses its interest in Christianity, the pulpit is responsible for it. If Satan rules in our halls of legislation, the pulpit is responsible for it. If our politics become so corrupt that the very foundations of our government are ready to fall away, the pulpit is responsible for it.” Rev. Charles Finney (1792-1875), a Presbyterian and Congregationalist preacher during the Second Great Awakening, a Christian revival period