Back in August I was stunned to receive a threatening letter from a law firm in Birmingham in which the lawyer said he would “bring an action against the United Methodist Church in Alabama to terminate its tax exempt status because it has become a political and not a religious institution,” because our church is “so heavily political that it should no longer qualify for a tax exemption under the United States Internal Revenue Code.” The lawyer was upset about “blatantly political” statements. He also said that he intended to enlist the ACLU in his efforts. He set out three demands including a demand that I “Direct that the Methodist Church avoid political activities” and that I “Direct that the Methodist churches in your diocese [sic] hereinafter avoid political activities."
I didn’t know what to make of his threat against me and our church. I have been bishop here for five years and he is the only person who has ever written me a letter complaining that any pastor or has been engaged in “blatantly political” activity. In my forty years of ministry I have never had a complaint that I was “blatantly political.” Anyone knows from my writing that the opposite is the case – I would rather talk about Jesus than politics of the right or the left.
True, I have been most supportive of Governor Riley’s efforts at prisoner rehabilitation and Katrina relief and once led the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast. I also gave a prayer, at the invitation of Methodists, before a meeting of Alabama Arise. Our Conference has been a long time supporter of ALCAP that lobbies on gambling and liquor issues. I spoke at ALCAP’s annual meeting. However I’ve never had anyone, before this exchange of letters with this lawyer, question these activities.
In an effort to try to ascertain what led this lawyer to this action, I asked to meet with him and to meet with any of his clients who shared his concerns. He declined.
Even though I’m sure that all of you know more about the church than this attorney, just a couple of thoughts in case any of our pastors or churches need clarification:
- The US Constitution gives Methodist Christians the right to join with anyone else in speaking freely and advocating forcefully for any law or government action that seems, from a Methodist Christian point of view, worthy of our support. Scripture, and the Wesleyan Tradition (including tradition in the North Alabama Conference) give us the obligation to speak up and speak out whenever we feel so motivated by the power of the Holy Spirit.
- We are not free (by law and by pastoral concern) to use our pulpits to tell people which candidates to vote for. (I’ve never witnessed anyone do this in a Methodist church, but I mention it just in case.)
- Sometimes I wish I were as powerful as this lawyer implies, but I am not free to order our clergy not to preach anything they are led by scripture and the Holy Spirit to preach. United Methodist pulpit freedom is one of our great treasures.
- Even if this lawyer could get his friends at the ACLU or the Internal Revenue Service to get us to preach what he would like to hear, we would probably cite Acts 5:29.
Over Thanksgiving I talked to with a number of our churches who had served dinner to over three thousand people in need! Trinity and Robertson Chapel in the Upper Sand Mountain Parish, The East Tuscaloosa Community Soup Bowl, Holt, Florence First, Austinville and Guntersville First have made feeding those in need a centerpiece of their work. Birmingham Urban Ministries has done remarkable work during one of the most difficult year they’ve had financially. This is the primary way United Methodists respond to the weaknesses in our political leadership – not by preaching but by doing.
I urge all of our North Alabama churches to join Patsy and me in giving to the Annual Fountain of Love offering for our fine Methodist Homes Ministry. This is another great North Alabama Conference mission success story.Will Willimon