The Right to Prophesy
According to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18. “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Freedom of religion is an inalienable right, not granted by states and therefore must not be restricted. People of faith have the same right to participate in the political process as all other citizens. They have the right to organize, to propose legislation, and to support candidates whom they feel best represent their concerns.
Those, who oppose policies generally supported by conservative religiously motivated citizens, routinely decry the participation of people of faith in the political process in hopes of disenfranchising their opposition. They whine about the “religious right” and claim violations of “separation of church and state” because they know they are losing. People of faith around the world are recognizing their duty to participate and taking advantage of the freedom to do so.
There is one area, however, where a number of governments which claim to support freedom of religion routinely restrict that freedom and this needs to be remedied. There are laws on the books in theUnited Statesand elsewhere which restrict the right of religious leaders to exercise the office of prophet by threatening to remove the tax exempt status of any religious group whose leaders speak prophetically on political issues.
Prophesy is not fortune telling, but calling people to repentance. A prophet is a person called by God to speak directly to the people about moral issues. Prophets have issued specific warnings to political leaders in their own and other countries, to their own congregations and to non-believers.
For Christians, prophesy is an essential part of religious practice. According toSt. Paul”God has set in Church first apostles, second prophets.” It is, therefore, clearly a violation of the fundamental freedom of religion, as well as freedom of speech, to restrict the right of clergy to speak prophetically on political issues. Governments have no more right to restrict the prophetic function that they have demanding that a church get a restaurant license in order to distribute communion.
Prophets have often had problems with the establishment. St. Peter told the Sanhedrin that he must obey God not men. He was whipped for his words.St. Johnthe Baptist lost his head for prophesying against King Herod. The prophet Jeremiah was cruelly mistreated for prophesying defeat in a war. While loss of tax exempt status may not be as physically painful, it is clearly designed to silence the prophets and therefore a violation of freedom of religion.
The right to tax is the right to destroy; therefore laws which allow governments to threaten the tax exempt status of churches violate freedom of religion. Such violation of fundamental human right must not be tolerated. All restrictions on the right to speak prophetically on political issues including the right to name names and warn citizens about the spiritual consequences of their political actions must be removed.
Some may worry that increased involvement in politics by churches may turn some people against religion. It may, but I can’t find a single place in scripture where God told a prophet he could take a poll before he spoke to see how his words would be received. Indeed many prophets knew the kind of reception they were going to get and would have preferred to have kept silent. True prophesy is rarely popular, particularly with the establishment. It is, therefore, all the more important for the right to prophesy be protected.
What about false prophets? Of course there will be false prophets, but not to worry, they will have to answer to higher authority than the IRS.
Why has this unconstitutional restriction on freedom of religion not been challenged before? I fear it may be because too many pastors saw the restrictions as letting them off the hook. They could avoid speaking prophetically by claiming they would loose their tax exempt status and thus not have to face angry parishioners. However, just as the politicians have no right to be protected from the prophets, the clergy have no justification in hiding behind the law.
Affirming the unfettered right to prophesy as essential to the inalienable right to freedom of religion in no way violates the boundary between Church and state, indeed it makes it clear that the state may not say one religious practice is acceptable and another is not.
Originally published in The Providence Journal