Churches should promote good citizenship but avoid partisan politics, say three Baptist commentators responding to recent events.
Southern Baptist pastors Jerry Falwell and Ronnie Floyd both were both accused of violating rules for tax-exempt organizations by endorsing President Bush for re-election by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
Last week EthicsDaily.com reported on a book on shelves at LifeWay Christian Stores warning that Christians who shun political involvement do so at the nation's peril.
In Sinful Silence: When Christians Neglect Their Civic Duty, authors Ken Connor and John Revell say if Christians ignore God's passion for justice by refusing to go to the polls, "we may well behold God's heavy hand of judgment crashing down upon our nation in ways we have never imagined before."
Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists said the book "tries to scare Christians into the ballot box."
"There are a number of reasons why Christians should be informed about political issues, be engaged in civic processes and cast their votes in general elections, but fear of divine retribution ranks so low that it is not worth mentioning," Prescott, who also leads Oklahoma's chapter of Americans United of Church and State, said in his Aug. 13 weblog.
EthicsDaily.com also recently carried stories on AU's national executive director, Barry Lynn, reporting Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., to the IRS for endorsing Bush in an electronic newsletter and Floyd, pastor of First Baptist Church in Springdale, Ark., for tacitly endorsing Bush in his July 4 sermon.
After Arkansas newspaper columnist John Brummett sparked discussion by labeling Southern Baptists "Republibaptists," he came back with an Aug. 9 column illustrating "the right way" for churches to address citizenship with excerpts from another sermon preached July 4.
Michael Ruffin, pastor of The Hill Baptist Church, in Augusta, Ga., said Christians should play a role in shaping government but churches should not to get involved in the support of particular candidates.
"You will never hear me endorse anyone, and unless you sneak into the voting booth and peek over my shoulder you will never know for whom I vote," Ruffin said in the sermon, which appears with his permission in the sermon library section of EthicsDaily.com.
"If we're not a big enough church to have Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Libertarians and Greens we're not a big enough church," Ruffin said.
Ruffin said he believes that a nation that seeks and serves God will be a better nation, but "I believe also that unless everyone is free no one is free, and so I want the same freedoms for a Buddhist or a Muslim or an atheist that I want for myself.
"I believe that no thinking person could possibly be serious about wanting our nation to officially endorse or sanction religious practice from any perspective. Such efforts have never gone well. God is God, and God will help any people who turn to him, but people who attempt to speak for God are not always careful enough about guarding their hearts and remembering that they are fallible sinners."
Ruffin said what America really needs from Christians "is for Christians to be Christians."
"That means that our ultimate allegiance is to our crucified Lord."
Baptist Standard Editor Marv Knox counseled pastors to help churches "weather the maelstrom" of partisan politics by encouraging individual involvement in politics but to avoid taking sides.
"Hard as it is for the most partisan among us to comprehend, many voters affiliated with both parties have picked their political position precisely because of their Christian beliefs," Knox wrote in an editorial Aug. 6.
Many Christians vote Republican, Knox said, because of the party's emphasis on "personal morality," like abortion and gay marriage. Religious Democrats, meanwhile, are motivated by "public morality," like social justice and poverty issues.
"Ministers must serve all church members, no matter their party affiliation," he wrote. "If politics becomes a test of faith, members may not receive the pastoral care they need. And the pastoral task becomes harder than it already is."
On the other side of the issue, Falwell shot back at criticism by Americans United's Lynn by announcing a "special summit" Sept. 26-29 for pastors and church leaders.
"In the progressively more hostile environment we are witnessing against Christians, I believe it is high time that conservative pastors become enlightened as to their rights in the pulpit," Falwell said on his Falwell.com, the same Web site cited in Lynn's complaint to the IRS filed last month.
"Here is a crucial fact," Falwell said. "Pastors may endorse political legislation as long as such lobbying activities do not constitute more than a substantial part of their overall activities. I doubt that most pastors are aware of this fact."
Lynn responded with a news release urging ministers to ignore Falwell's conference on tax law and political activities by churches.
"Falwell is trying to build a Republican political machine based in fundamentalist churches, and he doesn't care if he gets those congregations into tax trouble," Lynn said. "There are plenty of places where clergy can get sound advice about federal tax law. Falwell's conference isn't one of them."
Meanwhile, a conservative group led by William J. Murray, son of famous atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, announced he was monitoring political activity in liberal churches in Virginia.
The Big Brother Church Watch, a group sponsored by the Religious Freedom Action Coalition, has already placed volunteers in politically active Metropolitan Community, Unitarian/Universalist and AME churches.
Volunteers will sit in pews and make notes of any endorsement or disparagement of political candidates. The group says it will report violations to the IRS.
Murray said in a statement that the IRS says conservative pastors cannot say candidates are for or against gay marriage because they are "Republican code words."
"There are plenty of liberal code words that are used from the pulpit that tell members of congregations that they have to vote Democrat or wind up in hell," Murray said. "What applies to conservative churches should apply to liberal churches as well."
The new group functions primarily through its Internet site at www.RatOutaChurch.org.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.