Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

The two topics to avoid in polite company are religion and politics. At least that's what we're told. So when the AP got a hold of a leaked video of Gov. Bevin speaking to a group of pastors and encouraging them to boldly speak to the social issues of the day and not fear losing their tax-exempt status, they saw a story. AP reported the governor "urged a group of preachers to embrace political speech at the pulpit by telling them not to fear a federal law that prohibits candidate endorsements by tax-exempt churches."

Define political speech. Is it simply speaking to politics, moral issues and culture, as some assume? Or are we talking endorsements, the art of spin, and the rough and tumble world of maneuvering for power?  Funny thing, I was at the Pastor's Appreciation event last week and didn't hear the governor talk about the latter. In fact, Gov. Bevin told approximately 125 pastors and church leaders in attendance, "It's not about R's or D's, its about what's right." He didn't tell them to endorse candidates, or get their people to vote for a certain party. He exhorted them to bring back some semblance of moral norms in a day when gender is no longer fixed and girls restrooms and locker rooms in our public schools are now open to biological males.

By the way, so what if a pastor endorses a politician from the pulpit? It may be unwise to do so. It may be injudicious as his role as shepherd and prove divisive to the congregation, but please don't call it unconstitutional. If anything, the First Amendment protects the rights of pastors to preach unfettered messages without federal government intrusion. Churches can deal with the wisdom of whether a pastor should address politics and endorse candidates. But we all should be concerned when the government encroaches into church affairs and restricts messages from the pulpit.

At issue is the Johnson Amendment, a law passed in 1954 by Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, in order to muzzle his  political opponents. The result is Section 501(c)3 which bars “religious, charitable, scientific,… or literary [organizations] from “participat[ing] in, or intervene[ing] in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”  The measure wasn't meant to bar churches or nonprofit advocacy organizations from commenting on candidates or speaking to social issues. That's why Gov. Bevin called the law a "paper tiger."

It's unreasonable to expect churches to piece together lives of shattered individuals who've made poor moral choices and expect those same churches to be silent about the dangers of making such poor choices in the first place. Pastors and churches are the ones that care for the homeless, orphans, drug-addicted, and despondent and should be free to delineate moral boundaries that prevent people from catapulting themselves into the abyss of dissolution. This logically extends to speaking to all facets of an issue including policies and politics.

The nation's democratic institutions more secure and society more stable when citizens adhere to a moral code prescribed by the Almighty. The Father of our nation thought so and reminded us in his Farewell Address that "of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity. Religion and morality are indispensable supports." Gov. Bevin did no more at the gathering of pastors last week.

Maybe we're dealing with such contentious social issues and lives ravaged by immoral behavior, because the pulpits have been silent too long. There has been fear and intimidation, some self-induced but nonetheless, if ever there's been a time for pastors to speak with clarity and boldness, it's now. If we've ever needed more voices speaking to pressing social issues, the time is now.  After all, politicians don't have a monopoly on speaking to social and moral issues.