On Patriotism, Public Preaching, and the IRS
By Martin E. Marty, Chicago, IL
Ninety years ago this Fourth of July weekend, the City Council of West Point, Nebraska passed a resolution that citizens were not to hold “assemblages not in sympathy with the war” or to distribute literature “out of harmony with the war,” that is, World War I. On April 19, 1918 the local paper reported that three Catholic priests and one Lutheran minister “were not permitted to preach last Sunday,” because they violated Nebraska’s Sedition Law. “No alien enemy may act in the capacity of preacher…without having first filed an application in district court…The applicant must show when he came to this country, what places he has been, what steps taken toward completing naturalization and what contributions he has made toward winning the war.”
Fathers Grobbel, Roth, and Brasch and Pastor Mangelsdorf, not yet citizens, “appeared in court the next week. Each stated his sympathy to the American cause and stated they were in the process of becoming citizens. They were granted licenses to preach. Area residents who had not completed all necessary paperwork to become U.S. citizens fell into the category of possible enemy aliens.” A woman accused of being unpatriotic “denied the charges and mentioned her husband had purchased Liberty Bonds and that she had donated to the Red Cross.” A new and prize-winning history of West Point adds: “The case came to an end when the armistice was signed in November.”
I came across this while doing research before speaking at my natal town, West Point, for its one hundred and fiftieth anniversary last weekend. The Sedition Law was passed in a fit of anti-German sentiment and violence during the War. The story of anti-German-language legislation in Oregon, Nebraska, and elsewhere is familiar, and there were thousands of West Points where scenes like those just described were common. Things have quieted. Today, the town (of three thousand plus people) is 87.2 percent White Non-Hispanic (and 12 percent Hispanic), and still numbers 54.2 percent citizens of German ancestry, along with 5.5 percent of Czech and 4.6 percent of Swedish descent. Germans there are obviously safe and prospering. So why bring up this history here and now?
Independence Day Weekend provides occasion, among those who care, not only to barbecue, watch fireworks, wave flags, and watch parades—I did three of the four, so I should qualify as 75 percent patriotic—but also to review our history and reflect on it. This item about wartime hysteria, the impulse to be suspicious and fearful and hence macho about “true Americanism,” is matched in numberless American stories. It is almost embarrassing to place anti-German madness during World War I in a context of ferocious hostility against Native Americans, African-Americans, and Asians (recalling the concentration camps our government set up for every Japanese-American we could catch) but sometimes milder cases illumine the more extreme ones.
Why pick at the old scabs? Answer: Because in this long, long war suspicion is raised again, this time against Arab-Americans, profiled potential terrorists, anyone and anything Muslim. If we would learn from, history, we might have fewer instances of harassment and embarrassment shown to those who do not appear to be quite like “us,” the patriots, who are inconveniencing ourselves so much—tell us how!—to “win” the war against terror. But I don’t want to conclude that way. Noticing how relatively at peace our West Points and many big communities are, how ready the majority of Americans are to tell poll-takers that they are not religiously and racially prejudiced, we do have cause to celebrate, without, I think, needing licenses to preach. Yet God bless America.
Public Pulpits by friend Stephan M. Tipton of Emory is a timely, historically-informed analysis of “Methodists and Mainline Churches in the Moral Argument of Public Life.” The “pulpit’ is largely metaphoric here, because Tipton’s accent is on policy-making and headquarters’ involvements in politics, but these inform preachers. The book will provide background for discussions of the role of preachers and, yes, pulpits, in the political side of public life. (I prefer to hear political discourse in the lecture hall or classroom, where there can be give-and-take, while the sermon is in most ways monological.)
Preachers seldom have had it so good, or so bad, as they have it during the current campaign, as treated not so much by campaigners as by media commentators. So good? The commentators propagate the idea that preachers have enormous and spellbinding power. This implies that if a preacher says something, everyone will hear and, unless restrained, act upon what they heard, for good or evil. During a campaign, that means “for evil.” They also never had it so bad because they have not gotten the point across, culture-wide, that congregants are smart enough to filter, discreet enough not to tear the sermons apart, and hungry enough that they want to hear “the gospel,” messages of faith and hope and love as they try to put their week or part of their lives together.
If they would consult their friendly neighborhood historians of American Christianity—Protestantism in particular—they would get ample evidence. My students have heard that, were I to carve a Mt. Rushmore or twentieth-century preachers, it would include five: Walter Rauschenbush, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr., and William Sloane Coffin. They all preached to many classes of people, including those powerful enough to get their names in print. Some hearers were alienated and walked away to receive sweeter messages (as some blacks now do, too, with the non-biblical “Prosperity Gospel”). Some did not. Start with John D. Rockefeller, who traipsed and slogged through the mud of the slummy West Side in New York, in support of the “Social Gospel” preacher Rauschenbush and his church and charities. His “Gospel” was near-socialist and we may presume that Rockefeller was capitalist. Yet they never broke. The magnate admired the preacher/theologian and stayed with him.
Next generation: John D. Rockefeller, Jr., admired modernist Harry Emerson Fosdick enough to basically fund cathedral-like Riverside Church in New York. We have records of the give-and-take contentions between preacher and hearer, often about the place of the businessperson, one of which Rockefeller was. When Reinhold Niebuhr was a Detroit pastor he had no notable members, but he challenged all on issues of labor; not all of them agreed with him, but they stayed and cried when he left. King was in his own pulpit briefly, but later he was in many pulpits, sometimes all but cursing racist America before he preached the gospel of reconciliation. His test: Who stuck with him when he radically criticized the Vietnam War? Many were conflicted, but stayed.
William Sloane Coffin, a man of legends, told various versions of how a “right-wing” friend raved about his pastor and beckoned Bill to church to hear him. They heard a sermon that had to be classified “left.” How did this work? “Listen, he held my wife’s hand during her last twenty-four hours and mine the next twenty-four. I’d show up even if he only read the Yellow Pages.” We have a lot to learn about pulpit-pew transactions, so little understood within the sanctuaries and, for sure, beyond them “in public.”
Billy James Hargis, a now forgotten but once towering figure on the not yet couth religious right, built a radio ministry and developed an anti-Communist front that has to be remembered as rabid. The preacher of righteousness was so overtly political that the Internal Revenue Service tabbed him for violating revenue regulations. Having to pay taxes for a year is not what did him in. What weakened his empire and led to his demise was the standard brand “over the top moralist” syndrome. As the press delighted in telling, a female alum of his American Christian College, on her wedding night, confessed to her groom that she had had sexual relations with their college president. On fairness grounds he responded, “So did I!”
Hargis wanted to take others down with him and fingered The Christian Century as a violator. The year was 1964, and in the Goldwater-Johnson campaign the magazine’s cover bannered “Goldwater No!” So far so good. Then it followed, in a momentary fit of affirmation, with a cover, “Johnson Yes!” No, no, and no! Hargis inspired the I.R.S. to pursue the magazine, which, knowing it was guilty, lost its tax-exemption that year.
The IRS regulation does not permit a 501 (c) (3) tax exempt organization to deploy major energies or resources in support of specific candidates or legislation up for debate. The topic has become urgent in 2008, because religion has become ever more prominent in partisan politics, clerics have backed or fronted for candidates, candidates have sought church leadership support, some borderline-violators are being sought out and some of them are fighting back—strenuously.
Some years ago the IRS pursued a Texas Catholic diocese, whose bishop had the diocesan paper respond in a headline which, if I recall correctly, reduced everything to one word: “Nuts!” What IRS person is going to pursue the question further? Presidential candidates have regularly trouped to churches to give inspirational messages which could not not be partisan and vote-seeking. The IRS is closely watched by those who discern selective enforcement. Watch for more.
Some of the intentional violators are fighting back through legal fronts. Thus Suzanne Sataline told in the Wall Street Journal (May 9) how “Pastors May Defy IRS Gag Rule,” and that a “Legal Group Urges Ministers to Preach About Candidates.” The group is the Alliance Defense Fund, which aggressively promotes preachers of politics in pulpits so overtly that the IRS will some day have to swoop and the ADF can showcase government suppression of religious freedom. We are going to have a very busy set of enforcers. The black churches advertise nothing new in their actions: Greet numbers of them have turned their pulpits over to politicians. “Justice Sunday” promoters work at the borders of legality as they instruct churches how to use their power to get votes for favored candidates and policies.
How to stay clean and legal? You will hear preachers on the lift, muzzled by tax law, telling you that no prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures could have survived the new scrutiny. (All Democrats?!?) But, then, they were acting within overt theocratic bounds. Few are sure as to where the bounds are now. Be thankful you are not a judge in these matters and enjoy the campaigns (more outside the sanctuary than in it, one hopes). And that churchly voices then find ways to be heard and be in the thick of things. Meanwhile, “501 (c) (3)” comes to view more frequently than “John 3:16.”
These three articles originally appeared in Sightings (3/24/08, 7/7/08, 5/19/08), a publication of the Martin Marty Center of the University of Chicago Divinity School.