Every act of civil disobedience is, by its very nature, a provocation. The trick is to distinguish between acts that genuinely express the unjustly ignored conscience of the provocateur and those that merely are provocative.
On Sunday, 31 evangelical Protestant pastors in 22 states demanded that the rest of us do precisely that, when they participated in a "pulpit initiative" conceived by an Arizona-based Christian legal organization — the Alliance Defense Fund — which hopes to overturn the Internal Revenue Code's 54-year-old ban on political endorsements by tax-exempt organizations, including churches.
The lawyers and the pastors they've recruited contend that the ban — originally sponsored by then-Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson in 1954 — violates the clergy's First Amendment rights to both free speech and free exercise of religion. The pastors planned to endorse John McCain — there's a surprise — in hopes the IRS will come after their congregations' tax exemptions. Alliance then intends to fight their cases all the way to the Supreme Court, whose conservative justices it hopes will hold the ban on endorsements unconstitutional.
Let's imagine that the Alliance Defense Fund and its clerical clients were to persuade the Supreme Court to overturn the Johnson amendment's ban on political endorsements from the pulpit. At that point, what would prevent wealthy ideologues from making tax-exempt contributions to sympathetic pastors' churches for the express purpose of engaging in partisan electioneering? For that matter, what would prevent ambitious pastors from soliciting just such contributions and then using them to bind like-minded ministers into powerful political machines?
Separation of church and state, as we know it, would be in shreds — and the process wouldn't stop there.
It's unreasonable to assume that the courts would long let stand a preference for political speech by churches over that of other nonprofit charities and schools. In fact, if the Johnson amendment's prohibition were struck down for churches, it's a safe bet that every other sort of nonprofit would come roaring into court demanding equal treatment.
Participants in the pulpit initiative also are wrong on their history. From the founding it has been clear that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, the architects of our notions of religious liberty, intended to prohibit the state from dictating the content of religious convictions. Thus the preamble to the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, which Jefferson drafted in 1777: "Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness … that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money (through taxation) for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness …"
That sounds a lot like the spirit of the current tax code, which makes funds available from our collective purse for pursuit of the common good, although not political advantage. Jefferson confirmed that distinction in an exchange of letters with Sister Marie Therese Farjon, mother superior of the Ursuline convent of St. Xavier in New Orleans in March 1804, shortly after the Louisiana Purchase. The nuns, who operated an orphanage and school for foundlings, were concerned that the United States, whose jurisdiction they were now under, might not recognize France's gifts of property to support their work.
Jefferson replied with a statement of the government's support for the church's charitable role. "Whatever diversity … may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable object of your institution cannot be indifferent to any … (and) cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under."
They were a shrewd, as well as eloquent, bunch, the founders; we ignore them at our peril.
E-mail Tim Rutten at timothy.rutten@ latimes.com.