One of the great disillusioning moments of my young Catholic upbringing happened my senior year in high school. While performing some task (I can't remember the specifics, but it didn't involve fingering) in my high school's rectory (giggle) I discovered a binder I can only describe as the Cliff's Notes of Catholic mass homilies. For the non-Papists, homilies are sermons of 5-10 minutes that follow the reading of the Gospel. The presiding priest uses this time to relate the message of the Gospel to current events or contemporary life.
As a young person I always thought it was pretty cool that priests were such good public speakers and could so readily connect the Gospels to current events. Needless to say, it was a little soul-crushing to learn that there is a book of canned sermons the clergy presumably rely on heavily. Of course it makes sense that such a thing exists (although today I assume this has migrated online). Only a child could to have thought that the world's people of the cloth were coming up with this stuff extemporaneously every day. Still, it bothered me quite a bit to realize the extent to which my priests were phoning it in. Essentially the church could have hired a temp, slapped a cassock on him, and had him read off cue cards.
It should come as no suprise that this practice not only continues but has become the province of interest groups. While ideally these "cheat sheets" would be written by jolly, rotund, white-bearded monks in the Carpathians who seek nothing more than to spread the message of Jesus, in practice they are one step away from being written by Karl Rove. Much like interest groups write complete bills because they know Congressmen are lazy and more likely to play along if the work is done for them, Christian extremists assume that clergy will be unable to resist the temptation of a pret-a-porter sermon. They're busy people, right?
Anus-obsessed religious right activists at the Family Research Council and Alliance Defense Fund are getting serious about pre-packaging politically appropriate sermons for their churches. According to the FRC's Kenyn Cureton, they are working with the ADF on "a series of sermons this fall for pastors to preach, so that they educate their people on the issues." OK, great. Sermons are about educating people on "issues" and tenets of religious faith. That's not quite what he means, though:
"We're gonna be talking about the value of life, the value of family and the value of freedom, basically talking about abortion and stem-cell research," he continued, "and then also about the gay agenda and then finally about our Christian heritage and how it's being stripped from every corner of society. And then finally we're gonna be doing a candidate comparison message that is going to ask pastors to cross the line."
First of all, I love the construction of the first part – mentioning larger issues like life, family, and freedom followed by "basically talking about abortion and stem-cell research." So it's not really about freedom, family, or life. It's about abortion. And stem-cell research. More importantly, the "candidate comparison message" appears to be little more than an inducement for clergy to break the law.
It's no secret that much of what non-profit, tax-exempt interest groups do politicially (i.e., their hilariously one-sided, myopic, and biased "voter guides") are little more than thinly-veiled electioneering that happens to tiptoe around FEC and IRS guidelines to the satisfaction of a few attorneys. Clergy can legally talk about "the issues" until they are blue in the face and they have plenty of leeway to drop all kinds of not-so-subtle hints about what parishoners should do on Election Day. What the FRC fails to realize is that clergy also have the right to tell parishoners to vote for a specific candidate – so long as they're willing to kiss their tax exempt status goodbye.
While some groups are going out of the way to remind churches and clergy the risks they run by taking the FRC's negligent advice, some of the less intellectually gifted will no doubt take the bait. It's imperative that we allow houses of worship to act as partisan political organizations whenever they feel like that is worth relinquishing their tax exemptions. If they believe this is an unjust law, follow the example of Emerson (or the Book of Daniel) and break it – but don't forget the part in which Daniel and Emerson emphasize accepting the practical consequences of that decision. Above all, don't lightly disregard the lessons to be learned from pastors who "crossed the line" in 2004.