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Political Advocacy and Religion


At Issue: Last month, the Bush-Cheney campaign drew criticism when organizers sent letters to churches asking Bush-friendly volunteers to send copies of their church directory to the Bush-Cheney campaign, recruit more campaign volunteers within the church and hold “campaign-related” potluck dinners in the days before the election. Similarly, Democratic candidate John Kerry appeared at two churches during the primaries where clergy members appeared to endorse his candidacy. How far should religious leaders go when it comes to political advocacy?

Response: It is vital that religious organizations educate their congregants about how their faith tradition relates to the critical issues of the day. But it should be up to each individual to decide which combination of candidates, parties and legislation would best represent those values. At the Zen Center, formal talks and discussions are given periodically about war, poverty, human rights, consumerism, the environment and personal growth in ethical decision-making. We emphasize a daily life, engaged practice where meditative awareness guides all activities, including involvement in the political arena whether by voting, debating, protesting or running for office. I would consider it highly unethical for me to imply that a good Zen practitioner would vote for whatever candidate was my preference.

With the avalanche of spam and junk mail, as well as concerns about privacy and identity theft, it is important for an organization to have clear guidelines about the proper use of its mailing list. In our case, those who have visited the Center, made inquiries or practiced here are assured that their addresses will not be given to any other organization for any purpose, and so it would be unethical for a practitioner trusted with our mailing list to use it for campaign purposes.

During social time at the Zen Center or outside the Center, practitioners are free to talk about whatever they wish. In the past year, a quilting club has emerged, as well as a group involved in the raw food vegan lifestyle. I don’t quilt and I do eat cooked food, but I am glad to see how the flow of community life has naturally led to people discovering new friends and sharing varied interests. It is not the role of the Center to endorse or interfere with the social activities of the members. In this context, people could discuss their campaign activities or invite people to potlucks at their homes, as long as it was very clear that this was a personal interest, not a Zen Center sponsored activity.

Lastly, religious organizations that receive tax-exempt status are specifically prohibited from participating in a political campaign, endorsing candidates or encouraging people to vote for or against a particular candidate even on the basis of nonpartisan criteria. Last month the IRS sent a letter to national political parties on the subject of political activities, stating, “…We want to ensure that the political committees and the candidates they support understand the rules.” I believe that respect for the freedom of people who practice at our Center, and trust in their day-to-day decisions — including political choices — is the best rule.

– Rev. Dr. Deborah Barrett

Published: July 17, 2004