Friday, May 05, 2017

The end of religious freedom #occupytheswamp

In real terms, how the Presidential Executive Order on Free Speech and Religious Liberty will work.

Let's say, for example, that a wealthy supporter of Steve Womack realizes that Clint Schnekloth, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Womack's district, has a relatively influential media presence and a moderate-sized congregation of active community leaders and voters.

So this wealthy supporter quietly approaches the pastor for a coffee.

Donor: "Pastor, I'd be willing to make a sizable donation to your church if you would moderate your public voice opposing Womack on some issues. Heck, if you'd be willing to voice support for Womack in his re-election bid from the pulpit, I'd even double my contribution."

Pastor: "Well, you know for ethical and legal reasons I've typically only advocated from the pulpit on policy issues. That would be a big change. How big of a donation are we talking about?"

Donor: "I don't know. Ten thousand dollars?"

Pastor: "Well, I mean, if you REALLY want me to support Womack, perhaps we should be talking closer to $50,000. That would help us launch a new worship location. I know the new EO on religious freedom reifies the current practices around tax-exemptions, but it would still be a big shift for us."

Donor: "How vocal would you be willing to be in your support of Womack?"

Pastor: "Let me pray about it."

Donor: [Okay, that was a good start. Now let's go schedule some meetings with the mega-church pastors.]

This is a hypothetical conversation, obviously, but it does offer a scenario that illustrates precisely how religious freedom is compromised by freeing up political speech (especially in support of candidates) in tax-exempt organizations, rather than protected by it.

Donors would LOVE the opportunity to make tax-exempt contributions to political campaigns, and what better way than through the churches? In fact, it sounds like a win-win-win. Those with money get to support a candidate for public office; the church is strengthened financially in its ministry of care in the community; clergy gain greater latitude in what they can say from the pulpit.

However, this is purchased freedom. It's liberty occupied by cold hard cash. If currency is free speech, then certainly this is a win for free speech.

Once big donors know they can influence politics through tax-exempt organizations with no fear of penalty, they WILL do so, and the only thing maintaining the integrity of proclamation in such a situation will be the internal integrity of the pastor approached with such an offer, or the boards that hire them.

Certainly, at this point the EO is more bark than bite. But it's a bark that will be heard. It signals even more clearly than heretofore that not only does the state lack the will to prosecute religious violation of tax-exempt status, but that they are instructed not to prosecute it.

The gloves are off. Money is now speech. And even if a blog post like this may come across not as hypothetical analysis, but as a fishing expedition inviting such donations, it really doesn't matter much now.

Many churchgoers will assume the solution to this conundrum is simple. Make church apolitical. However, Christians are hard-pressed to find any example of apolitical faith in their Scriptures, and so if they practice faith in such fashion, they will find themselves abandoning their own tradition.

Christianity is not apolitical. It is instead a counter-politics. Jesus did not preach a spirituality detached from politics. He proclaimed the kingdom of God.

Citizens United already freed up big money to influence politics directly in ways it hadn't before, protecting the donations of corporations as a form of free speech. Now the capitalists are occupying religion also, turning absolutely everything into neoliberal politics. Donald Trump isn't draining the swamp. He's occupying it, and sucking everything else into it with him.

Everything is politics now, and religious liberty is precariously situated, sinking into the mire all the while under false pretense. It's like we're being pulled under, and meanwhile the captain is confidently proclaiming, "It floats. We've never been more sea-worthy!"

The counter-politics of the gospel rests easy enough in its Lord to know there's actually another ship, sailing by the power of different wind. It's a ship that cannot be bought, because it is already free. Working out in practice how that ship sails, and how to live on it, is the constant and compelling work of the church.

Here is a letter from Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton on the executive order.


  1. Spot on, Clint. Excellent post.

  2. A comment I'm migrating from Facebook to here:

    This thing of money influencing the political involvements of pastors and preaching is hardly new. Dealing with this, however, is an ethical imperative for us as Christians, as Lutherans, and as Americans, as citizens of the world. The truest danger I know of is one that we as Lutherans must have an intimate and unseemly historic relationship with, fascism. When there is religious fervor added to politics, then politics becomes one's religion. Paul Tillich spoke of our faith as our "ultimate concern." We so easily forget that we are sinful to our core, especially when we feel the righteousness of being on the right side with the masses who are with us. As a pastor, I always cultivated a congregation that had a diversity of political views. This is much harder than leading a like minded group who will hopefully somehow overcome their sinful resistance to listening to the other side. "Entrusted to us is the ministry of reconciliation" are the words of Paul. I must note those who will celebrate most the newest proclamation of our President are those who were restrained by the Johnson rule concerning political involvement of 501c3's. "Let religious fervor be unchained" is this dog whistle to those who believe that their God is empowering them to support nepotism, racism, and sexism in public policy. In my view this is the most dangerous thing President Trump has done to date with much more to come. His love for adulation is a call to worship. Lutherans better than all those who follow Christ should know the true meaning of Sieg Heil and then remember Bonhoeffer, and Tillich. I have more to say about this. Later, dear friends in Christ. Peace

  3. Collectives are always scary. Yet we need each other, especially in these times of such chaos. Jesus has to be the focus of a sincere Christian and much withdrawing to pray and self correcting by our communities of faith.. I don't know how this ends well. And I'm getting seasick. Need some Jesus peace to the waves of greed.