Friday, February 8, 2013

Prothero on Religion & Politics

Stephen Prothero is one of America’s leading scholars on the relationship between religion and politics. I have long agreed with him that Americans suffer from a religious illiteracy – and other forms of cultural illiteracy, of the kind that invites ideologues to prosper. There is a moral obligation to be intelligent, and this requires anyone really interested in American history to be religiously literate or else they will greatly misunderstand the American story. And, so, I eagerly read his new essay at Religion & Politics, the nifty website sponsored by the Danforth Center at Washington University in St. Louis.  Full Disclosure: I am on the editorial advisory board at R & P.

Yet, I disagree with Prothero on some of the issues he discusses and, most importantly, think he is using the wrong lens with which to view the issue. Essentially, his argument is that there is too much politics in religion and too much religion in politics.
As an example of too much entanglement, Prothero points to a sign put up at the First Baptist Church of West Harwich, Massachusetts before the election that read, “Scott Brown He’s For Us,” a sign at Corpus Christi Parish in Sandwich, Massachusetts opposing the ballot initiative on physician assisted suicide, and Rev. Billy Graham’s endorsement of Mitt Romney during the last campaign. Prothero writes that the pastor at the Baptist Church removed the pro-Scott Brown sign when he was informed it was illegal, he thinks the sign at the Catholic Church was legal, and he thinks Rev. Graham crossed the line and that they should lose their tax exempt status.
I have written before about the prohibition on religious groups, and all non-profits, abstaining from partisan activity in a print issue of NCR last December. The prohibition entered the federal tax code without any congressional hearings, as a floor amendment from Lyndon Johnson, and it was aimed not at the churches but at a non-profit in Texas that had campaigned against Johnson’s re-election. It has never been challenged in the courts because it has never been enforced. No politician, as Prothero notes, wants to charge Billy Graham with breaking the law. Still, the law should be changed or challenged. And, I disagree with Prothero that Graham should lose his tax exempt status.
Read the rest here

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