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Sheep in a World of Wolves

The faith tradition I love and have given the last 25 years of my life to serve is under assault. Wolves in sheep’s clothing have slipped into the fold and are systematically shearing the faithful to the bone.

Not just money, though a truck load of cash has flowed to a select group of political carnivores. No, something far more valuable has been lost. These predators have seriously diminished our influence and credibility. And what makes it all the worse is that many of the faithful are not only unaware of the assault on our resources and integrity, but they are encouraging it.

For instance, at the national level Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina has trotted out his “Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act.” The purpose of this bill is to “restore” free speech to churches, which are presently restricted from certain political activity by their tax-exempt status. Jones’ promotion of this bill is one of the most cynical and manipulative campaigns I have ever encountered. The level of fabrication is staggering.

Jones states the bill will “restore” to houses of worship their ability to speak out on issues that concern them.  The bill also restores a preacher’s right to educate congregants about political issues.

All that sounds pretty noble, except that it is already legal to do all that. Nothing in the tax code prohibits faith communities from engaging in issue education or even issue advocacy. What churches cannot do, and what Jones really wants them to be able to do, is endorse candidates.

The problems with this idea go far beyond whatever restrictions exist in the tax code. The vision of truth embodied in our faith is far too grand and exquisite to spend itself on the outcome of a single political campaign. That is a mess of pottage way too thin for us to sacrifice our birthright.

Another example a little closer to home has to do with a bill making its way through the Alabama state legislature that would force the Christian Coalition of Alabama to disclose its donor list. The reasoning of the legislature is if the Coalition is going to function as a political action committee, then the public has a right to know who is paying the bills.

John Giles, executive director of CCA, opposes the bill, arguing that his group is not a political action committee. They do not endorse candidates, he claims, but only issue advocacy—like a church.

The duplicity here is saddening. Anyone who has ever looked at one the Coalition’s voter guides knows immediately which candidates they prefer. It may not say, “Vote for this one,” but in the coded language of evangelical politics, the message is clear.

Of course Giles and the national Christian Coalition annually weaken their non-partisan claims by celebrating the victory of conservative Republican candidates that they supposedly did not endorse. In the 2002 gubernatorial race, Giles gave credit to the Coalition for the election of Bob Riley. Come on guys, you can’t have it both ways. If you don’t endorse candidates, you don’t celebrate their victories.

This tap dancing around the truth does not go unnoticed among the wider public. They see the deception and wonder why we don’t. To the degree that the faith community participates in these falsehoods, or remains silent about them, we suffer a loss of credibility. We also share the blame for the harm that is done both to the church and to our political process.

James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.