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September 3, 2008

Public and Private

Anyone interested in the place of religion in American public life owes a thoughtful read to Paul Vitello's fine piece on pastors' web electioneering and the IRS. In the old days, what was said in church more or less stayed in church; it was a semi-private space where pastors could speak to their congregants without concern that the outside world was listening in. Stuff about truth and who gets saved and, yes, who you might could vote for that was too uncivil or impolitic to say out loud in public was OK to utter in the sanctity of your own sanctuary. And if congregants learned about it in a newsletter or other piece of church-produced literature, well, that was pretty private too.

But in an age when everyone puts just about everything on the web, the private space of churches can become mass media in a twinkling. When the sermons of a James David Manning get picked up by a Rush Limbaugh, it's not just a question of how interested the IRS should become--or of what if anything to do about the requirement that non-profits eschew politicking if they want to keep their tax exemptions. The larger question has to do with a redefined public square in which whatever is said in church is readily available to the community at large.

This article is cross-posted from Spiritual Politics.