As a paid Common Tater, when I write about current politics I try to be neutral. To paraphrase Merle Haggard, if you want to see the partisan side of me, check Facebook. But I’m still an equal-opportunity critic and an ex-preacher both, and at the risk of sounding like Earl Pitts, American, one thing that makes me sick at heart and stomach both is to see secular partisan politics of any sort get into a house of worship. Church politics is a repulsive enough mess on its own, comparable to sausage in a way: if you like it, make sure you never watch it being made. But when you add secular issues into the religious mix it becomes an evil greater than the sum of its parts, more like a cow pile: the harder you stir it, the worse it stinks. And with the active encouragement of evangelists both on and off television, eager to acquire political power for their own personal gain and skilled in the ways of the Ephesian silversmiths described in the nineteenth chapter of Acts—working a crowd until some cry one thing, some another, the majority doesn’t even know what’s really going on but everybody’s as mad as wet hens about SOMETHING—nowadays it’s happening more and more all the time.
I’ve written about one basic example of this type of thing already: the last local-option vote and its accompanying hyperbolic prophecies of drunks passed out on every corner and strip joints lining Main Street if the city should “go wet,” both sides of the issue getting mightily angry at one another but neither threat ever materializing. Occasionally, too, in this Internet age you hear of a church posting sermons online that are partisan politically, causing the IRS to warn the preacher that he’s risking his church’s tax-exempt status and ultimately making a hullabaloo community-wide because the government’s supposedly persecuting the poor man of God and making him a martyr for his faith. I can think of a few choice four-letter responses to this idea, the cleanest of which is “bunk.” There’s no martyrdom, or even suffering, involved here. If any church and/or preacher wants to tell people whom to vote for all they need to do is voluntarily give up their tax exemptions and pony up like the rest of us. Then they can “electioneer” completely legally, but I don’t see anybody giving up any tax exemptions any time soon, religion, bunk, or no.
Still,neither of the above examples qualify as the worst local church-and-state violations ever to occur. I’ve often heard my folks speak of the 1960 Presidential contest when at least one community congregation actually sent its members door-to-door to campaign against John F. Kennedy: as one of those dreaded (back then, anyway) Roman Catholics he’d surely let the Pope take over the country. Al Smith was accused of the same thing in 1928 when he ran against Herbert Hoover. In Kennedy’s case, though, voters didn’t need to worry so much about the Pope as they did the Pop. If old Joe Kennedy hadn’t had a stroke between Election Day 1960 and Inauguration Day 1961 I suspect that his sons—both President John and Attorney General Bobby—would have hopped every time their old man said “frog.” Then again and for all we know, if old Joe had stayed healthy he might have kept John away from the Bay of Pigs and both sons might have lived longer and done more good. Who can say? In any case,in 1960 White Anglo-Saxon Protestant churches all over the country attempted similar anti-Kennedy/anti-Catholic campaigns, not only in eastern Kentucky, and none ultimately affected the election. And nowadays, only the most extreme hen-house sects have anything ill to say about Roman Catholic candidates, or even those of other non-Protestant faiths—except Islam, of course, which is still freely criticized around here in spite of all the Muslim physicians and their families who’ve been good citizens in this area for decades. For the 2012 election the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association actually removed all the anti-Mormon rhetoric from its website in honor of Mitt Romney’s Presidential run. I suppose in some way you can call that progress. I never checked to see if Franklin and Anne put it all back on the site after Romney lost.
And then twenty-odd years ago there was that young fool of a pastor that—but I guess we’ll just have to finish that story next week, won’t we? Stay tuned. I’m like the little boy that ate too many green apples about this one: you see, I’ve got inside information.