When I heard about President Trump’s typically a-typical speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, I wondered how his audience of dignitaries and mostly conservative religious leaders received him. Did they think he was funny? Did they regard his unrehearsed, stream-of-consciousness ramblings as refreshing? Was anybody offended that he used that solemn occasion to make fun of Arnold Schwarzenegger, his successor on “Celebrity Apprentice,” and his poor ratings? I don’t know. I guess we’re going to grow so accustomed to this sort of performance that we become numb to it.
Significant among his otherwise baffling remarks was the President’s promise to “get rid of and totally destroy” the “Johnson amendment,” the 63-year-old law that prohibits tax-exempt non-profit organizations – including religious congregations – from endorsing candidates for public office. He probably assumed this pledge would be received warmly, even enthusiastically, by those assembled before him. Many conservative evangelical pastors have been lobbying for the law to be rescinded on the grounds that it is a violation of their rights to free speech and free exercise of religion. As he was excoriating this law, Trump maintained that the “sacred right” of religious freedom “is under threat all around us.” What he apparently doesn’t know, or chooses not to believe, is that 80% of the American public, including a large majority of practicing Christians, support the Johnson amendment as a way of maintaining the separation of church and state.
Leaving aside the fact that the president cannot unilaterally “get rid of and totally destroy” a federal law, several thoughts come to mind that I, as a Christian pastor, feel the need to share.
1) Christian preachers already have the First Amendment right to say anything they want from the pulpit. The law doesn’t say I can’t publicly endorse a political candidate. It says that if I do, I put my church’s tax-exempt status at risk. Paying taxes is not “retribution” or “reprisal.” It’s a public duty. Churches don’t pay taxes because the government has no business interfering in church affairs. But if churches decide to become actively involved in politicking, Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state has been breached – by churches, not the government.
2) Despite the near-apocalyptic warnings to the contrary by certain right-wing preachers, the religious freedom of Christians in America is not under threat. American society is becoming more secular and pluralistic, but that is not the same thing as religious discrimination. It is not my right as a Christian to live in a Christian society. It is my constitutional right to worship God as I choose and to exercise my faith freely.
3) I am concerned that the freedom of non-Christian religions is at risk. Talk of registering Muslims and monitoring mosques is deeply troubling. The minority of Christians who want to eliminate the Johnson amendment are the same people who are trying to legislate, and therefore establish, their version of Christianity in a way that would discriminate against those who do not share their beliefs. In fact, it strains credulity that the people who welcome Trump’s promise would also support the right of a mosque to throw their support behind a Muslim candidate for mayor, sheriff, or Congress. They don’t really want this right granted to all faith communities – only their own.
4) Even if it were legal for churches to get fully involved in the political process, it would still be a bad idea for multiple reasons. First, our culture is already too polarized. Communities of faith are among the last venues where people of different political persuasions still work together despite their differences. If we start taking political sides, churches will be just as partisan as the rest of the country. (Too many already are.) Second, churches will become a tool of political parties. After the Watergate scandal, Rev. Billy Graham confessed that his public support of Nixon had been a mistake. He realized he was being used for political cover. When churches take partisan positions, they are reduced to serving political agendas and cease to be independent voices of moral authority. Third, using spiritual authority to pressure parishioners to vote a certain way is abusive and immoral.
5) The Johnson amendment gives churches and pastors the ability to say to politicians who pressure them for support, “As a tax-exempt organization, we can’t do that.” Without the law, we become open season for candidates looking for a quick way to reach lots of voters, and even better, receive tax-exempt contributions, thus manipulating religious communities for their own political and financial purposes.
The Johnson amendment was passed without fanfare in the year 1954. That was the same year “in God we trust” was adopted as the national motto and “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. It was the height of the Red Scare, when the “Judeo-Christian ethic” was being celebrated as evidence of our moral superiority over godless Soviet Communism. It’s hard to imagine an era when American society was more overtly religious than the 1950s. Yet even then, hardly a whimper was heard in opposition to this law. A wide bi-partisan consensus considered it to be common sense.
The popular consensus has not changed. And it’s still common sense. Seems like that ought to be enough to settle the issue. But I know better. In this strange climate, consensus and good sense rarely add up to a sure thing.
©2017 by J. Mark Lawson