A Word Of Pastoral Advice: Don't Trump The Johnson Amendment

Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. --Gospel of Matthew 22:21

I am a Roger Williams kind of Baptist pastor. Strange as it may seem to outsiders to the historic Baptist brand, I strongly oppose the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, a law passed by Congress in 1954 and named for then U.S. Senator Lyndon Johnson that prohibits tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, including churches and other houses of worship, from endorsing or opposing political candidates and giving tax-exempt dollars to partisan campaigns. I wholeheartedly esteem the rich religious pluralism of our country, and I oppose any measure that would weaken constitutional safeguards ensuring religious liberty for ALL.

For more than 60 years, the Johnson Amendment has honored the constitutional separation of church and state while also accommodating the religious exercise of clergy and churches without prejudicing the rights of some over others. President Trump and the 115th United States Congress would trump this federal law to the peril of both our nation’s political process and the prophetic witness of our nation’s great religions.

Under our current tax code, churches and pastors acting in their official capacities can speak as much as they want about the moral and ethical issues of the day, but they are not permitted to endorse or oppose political candidates. Neither are houses of worship permitted to take up tax-deductible offerings and donate them to partisan campaigns. This is thanks to the provisions under the Johnson Amendment and built upon First Amendment principles designed to protect both the free exercise of religion and defend against its establishment by government.

To get rid of and “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, as President Trump promised to do as recently as last week at the National Prayer Breakfast, would totally destroy one of the great foundations of American democracy that has preserved the integrity of our political process and protected houses of worship from devolving into political action committees.

To violate the provisions of the Johnson Amendment would be to jeopardize churches’ tax exemptions under Section 501(c)(3). This is as it should be. The religious faithful do not worship in sacred spaces, because they want or need their leaders telling them how to vote. And moreover, churches and other houses of worship should not use their religious coffers as political conduits to make tax-exempt donations to political candidates and campaigns. To do so would mean that individuals would get a tax deduction for contributing to the church, and the church could then give to candidates and campaigns while remaining exempt from taxes and financial disclosure. Churches need to reject and renounce this kind of political pandering. To have money given in the name of God only to be funneled to political parties and partisan causes is a form of using God’s name in vain. Therefore, let us stick to stewardship campaigns, not political campaigns.

Leaders of the religious right (and backed by President Trump) claim with reckless credulity that because pastors cannot endorse political candidates from the pulpit that it is a suppression of their religious freedom and an infringement on their freedom of speech. This is flat-out false. The so-called muzzle on ministers’ free political expression is a fabrication that runs afoul of the First Amendment.

Moreover, contrary to Trump’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast that the Johnson Amendment encroaches on Americans’ rights to “worship according to our own beliefs,” Christians and people of all faiths already enjoy the right to worship according to their own beliefs. Partisan politicking from America’s pulpits and funding political campaigns as part of annual church budgets has absolutely nothing to do with worshiping God according to the dictates of conscience. This is unnecessary, unwise, and even unethical.

Practically speaking, pastors’ approval ratings and politicians’ approval ratings may not be all that different, after all, depending on theological moods, shifting financial circumstances, and cultural forces at large. Many ministers like me already have learned that preaching in the time of Trump alone is a recipe for confusion, misunderstanding, hurt, and divisiveness. I believe that religious leaders can and should speak out on the moral issues of our time---taking care of immigrants, housing the homeless, climate change, clothing the naked, and serving the poor---but the church’s allegiance is to be prophetic, not political. Churches should be identified according to enduring religious convictions, not a fleeting political ideology.

Even when the most well-meaning and caring pastors speak to the political and social issues of our time, many members are still on edge with their pastors when there is even the slightest modicum of “playing politics” from the pulpit. Given the inevitability of the political ramifications of a faithful commitment to the wisdom of Scripture, there always exists the possibility that the religious faithful will understand politics and partisanship to be synonymous, even when they’re not.

Just imagine how much more divisive churches and houses of worship would be if their independent religious witness was painted with the colors of political parties and tainted by the bad decisions of the candidates they endorsed. Opening wide the church’s doors to partisan politics and politicizing our houses of worship by repealing the Johnson Amendment is bad for religion and bad for our political process.

In my own tradition, I have learned that Christians are citizens of two kingdoms: the United States of America and the kingdom of God. Certainly the Baptist contribution to American democracy does not require a divorcement of religion from politics, or God from government, or Christians (and adherents of other religions) duties of citizenship. We are compelled to be the moral conscience of the country and to bring our religious convictions into our nation’s political process--to engage moral and social issues passionately in order to contribute to the common good.

While Christian citizenship specifically and religious ethics generally should be applied to the political sphere, allegiances to both God and government cannot ultimately be equally maintained. In the end, our religious allegiances should always transcend our political alliances.