Politics and the pulpit

Published 9:32 am Monday, February 6, 2017


In an attempt to cement support from conservative Christians, President Donald Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast this week promised to seek the repeal of a law that prohibits members of the clergy from endorsing political candidates from the pulpit.
The target of Trump’s criticism is the Johnson Amendment, which was added to the tax code in 1954 at the behest of then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson. The amendment prohibits so-called 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charitable organizations, secular and religious alike, from participating in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office.
The amendment doesn’t prevent priests, rabbis or other members of the clergy from sermonizing about political issues from poverty to climate change to terrorism, nor does it prohibit them from endorsing candidates in their personal capacities. Rather, it says to churches and other nonprofits that if they seek the benefits of tax-exempt status — which can be worth millions of dollars — they must refrain from a subset of political speech. The underlying principle is that when taxpayers provide a financial benefit to charitable organizations (including religious ones), they shouldn’t be asked to subsidize political views with which they might disagree.
But in recent years the Internal Revenue Service has failed to aggressively enforce the law, despite open defiance by religious groups that believe — erroneously — that they have a 1st Amendment right to endorse candidates without losing their tax-exempt status.
The Johnson Amendment was in the headlines this past summer after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump first pledged to overturn it.
“We’re going to get rid of that horrible Johnson amendment and we’re going to let evangelicals, we’re going to let Christians and Jews and people of religion, talk without being afraid to talk,” Trump said in July.
A survey conducted by Lifeway Research last fall indicated that the majority of Americans (79 percent) believe it’s inappropriate for preachers to endorse political candidates from the pulpit.
Additionally, three-quarters of Americans said they believe churches, too, should avoid endorsements, and 81 percent said houses of worship shouldn’t use their resources to campaign for candidates.
Clearly, there isn’t much of an urge among the public to hear pastors getting too political — and perhaps there’s a good reason for that.
“Americans already argue about politics enough outside the church,” Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, said in a statement. “They don’t want pastors bringing those arguments into worship.”
The Johnson Amendment has sparked controversy over the years. A group of pastors comes together with conservative legal firm Alliance Defending Freedom each year to rail against the regulation.
They organize the Pulpit Freedom Sunday, an event during which preachers openly discuss politics from the pulpit to push back against the IRS.
The rule does not prevent churches — or other charities — from speaking freely. Religious leaders and churches have been weighing in on political issues for as long as there have been pulpits. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jeremiah Wright and thousands of clergymen on any given weekend have been energetic advocates of political or social causes.
Clergy members can encourage parishioners from the pulpit to carry their faith into the public sphere without endorsing or opposing particular candidates. It happens all the time.
But, when churches move from being independent vehicles for political causes and become arms of political parties, they lose their prophetic voice. Worse, they lose their spiritual credibility.
The wall of separation between church and state is important. If churches are freed up to jump into partisan politics, many of them likely will — and they will taint themselves in the process. Instead of being an oasis of apolitical calm in an increasingly bitterly divided nation, they will become soldiers in the political wars.

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