Religious Institutions and Elections in America – Leavenworth Times
Someone once said to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Mr. Justice Holmes, the Constitution is full of glittering generalities. Holmes replied, “That is an understatement. It is full of flamboyant ubiquities. As this incident shows, the Constitution of the United States is a very vague document, and throughout its history it has had to leave it to the federal courts to determine exactly what its provisions mean.
The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the non-establishment of any religious group as an official national religion. This clause of the Constitution has given rise to a number of legal controversies over the years. Recently here in Kansas we had such controversy over the Value Them Both amendment to the state constitution. A number of Kansas religious institutions campaigned hard for this amendment, leading some people to accuse them of violating their tax-exempt status that stems from the non-establishment clause.
However, the tax-exempt status of religious institutions in America does not require them to remain silent on matters of public policy. What he requires of them is that they do not endorse specific candidates running for office. For example, in my own church, the Catholic Church, over the years I have heard many letters read to the congregation by bishops and archbishops on the eve of an election. However, these letters never endorse specific candidates for election. What they do is lay out the moral principles that should guide the voting behavior of Catholics.
For example, on this very controversial issue of abortion, the bishop’s or archbishop’s letter usually says that the church views abortion as a most critical moral issue and that anyone who wishes to remain in rule with the church should not vote for candidates who are strong supporters of abortion rights. However, in all the sermons I have heard since converting to Catholicism in 1974, I have never heard a statement about which candidate I should vote for. (As for the more poignant question of whether pro-choice Catholic politicians should be denied communion, the Holy Father said that was a matter to be left to individual bishops.)
In conclusion, in the November election here in Kansas, we face controversies over a variety of moral issues such as abortion, transgender rights, state food sales tax, and more. It is not just the opportunity for religious groups to speak out on these most important issues, it is their obligation to do so.
Let us remember the famous words of that great British statesman Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that men of good will do nothing.”
Ernest Evans is a columnist for the Leavenworth Times.