The legitimacy of political speech from the pulpit is much debated. Some contend that religious institutions should be silent, because of separation of church and state or the inaccessibility of divine inspiration to nonbelievers. But religious speech has been central to American politics from the beginning. As one example, consider the sermon of John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister and president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton). About one month before his election to the Continental Congress in June 1776, Witherspoon preached and published in Philadelphia The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men. It concluded as follows:

Upon the whole, I beseech you to make a wise improvement of the present threatening aspect of public affairs, and to remember that your duty to God, to your country, to your families, and to yourselves, is the same. True religion is nothing else but an inward temper and outward conduct suited to your state and circumstances in providence at any time. And as peace with God and conformity to him, adds to the sweetness of created comforts while we possess them, so in times of difficulty and trial, it is in the man of piety and inward principle, that we may expect to find the uncorrupted patriot, the useful citizen, and the invincible soldier. God grant that in America true religion and civil liberty may be inseparable, and that the unjust attempts to destroy the one, may in the issue tend to the support and establishment of both.

Witherspoon served in Congress intermittently until 1782. He was the only clergy member to sign the Declaration of Independence and an architect of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War in September 1783. He later served in the New Jersey legislature and was a member of that state's ratifying convention for the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Nine of the 55 participants in the federal convention in 1787 were Princeton graduates, including James Madison who studied under him. For Witherspoon, liberty was more than a secular matter.

For those unclear about the legal framework that applies today to religious institutions interested in publishing political comments, you should consult the newly released Government Regulation of Political Speech by Religious and Other 501(c)(3) Organizations Report at and contact church-state counsel.