Pulpit Freedom Sunday: An Act of Civil Disobedience?

On Sunday, October 7, 2012, thousands of pastors across America stood in front of their congregations and preached politics. With Election Day closing in fast, one can imagine the stress campaign managers for Romney and Obama are under this morning. And while this could be an entertaining subject in and of itself, for the purposes of this blog, I want to focus instead on the issues of legality and civil disobedience with respect to “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” Were these pastors engaging in an act of civil disobedience? Was it justified civil disobedience? I’ll engage with the standards set by John Rawls to determine the answers to these questions.

Rawls provides that in order to qualify as civil disobedience an act must be: 1. Contrary to law, 2. Conscientious, 3. Public, 4. Non-violent.

First, those pastors who took part in Pulpit Freedom Sunday did act contrary to law. According to a the Johnson Amendment of 1954, tax-exempt organizations such as churches or charities are banned from making political endorsements. Therefore in preaching for or against a candidate, as these pastors did, definitely violates the law, thus meeting the first requirement.

Second, this act was conscientious. It was not done for the pastors’ personal gains but rather was done methodically planned and executed. There is a website, in fact, dedicated to describing and gaining support for Pulpit Freedom Sunday. Along with this it also meets the third requirement put forth by Rawls because in promoting their political views from the pulpit to their congregations, these pastors are making their actions quite public. And finally, their actions are non-violent.

So it seems that those who carried out Pulpit Freedom Sunday did, in fact, engage in Civil Disobedience. However, the question over its justification still needs to be considered.

Rawls argues that an act of civil disobedience is justified if it meets the following qualifications: 1. Is a Last Resort, 2. Opposes substantial Injustice, 3. Fairness, 4. Chance of Success.

Prior to deciding whether or not Pulpit Freedom Sunday meets these requirements, however, one must think about what exactly these pastors were trying to accomplish. It seems that they are addressing the matter of the separation of church and state. While they are actually bringing matters of politics into their religious sermons, in violating the law against doing so, they are making the statement that the government has no authority to dictate to religious institutions what can or cannot be a subject of their sermons.

Therefore, turning back to the question of justification: Was this a last resort? It does not seem so. The issues of separating the church and state have been present since America’s inception, and will continue to be one in the future. Therefore I do not believe that this action was necessarily the last resort to solving the matter. Perhaps this is because the issue that Pulpit Freedom Sunday wished to address is so broad.

Secondly, does this oppose a substantial injustice? Again this answer goes back to the matter of church and state. Some would argue that because these institutions do not pay taxes and thus do not directly contribute monetary funds to our government, their opinions on the government or those wishing to become head of our government should not come to fruition. Therefore is having a law against the ability of religious institutions to do so really an injustice? And say it is an injustice, is it substantial? The issue is too broad it seems to be able to determine by Rawls’ narrow definition of justification.

The third requirement by Rawls is over the issue of fairness. That is, are these pastors willing to give others a right to commit a similar act? Perhaps another way of stating it is, are these pastors willing to acknowledge such a separation of church and state in other situations. I’m willing to bet the answer is a firm N-O. One only has to think about the issue of gay marriage to see that in some instances churches think the government should heed their opinions over state matters.

Despite the fact that Pulpit Freedom Sunday has not met any of the first three requirements for justification, we still must consider whether it meets the fourth. Is there a good chance that these pastors will achieve their goals? Probably not. While the IRS and the government will have too difficult a time to directly punish those participating in the act, it is not likely that any real change will come from it. Many wished this would end with a lawsuit in which the restriction was deemed a violation of such separation and thus unconstitutional, they admit that such an outcome is not probable.

Therefore, while Pulpit Freedom Sunday qualifies as an act of civil disobedience, even under Rawls’s rather narrow definition, it fails to meet the requirements for justification.

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