If the church gives into partisanship, it gives up its calling
Before we “totally destroy” something, we might ask why it’s there to begin with.
President Trump has pledged to use all the tools at his disposal to get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment. In 1954 then-Texas Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson proposed an amendment to the IRS tax code that prohibited charitable organizations (including religious ones) from endorsing political candidates or collecting money to support candidates for public office, while at the same time claiming tax-exempt status. This rule reinforces the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prevents the government from establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
Nowadays some preachers argue they are being denied religious freedom by this restriction. They believe the First Amendment only applies to government interference in religion and does not restrict pastors from endorsing candidates or churches from engaging in partisan politics.
The dangers of abolishing the Johnson Amendment are legion, but consider what is already permitted under current law. Religious leaders may speak boldly and unapologetically about social and political issues. We may with no fear of prosecution speak for the right of a woman to have a legal abortion or against that right. We may speak for the proposal to build a wall on our southern border or not to. We may advocate for increased public school funding or for a voucher program that would subsidize private and religious schools with taxpayer funds.
What’s more, our communities of faith may organize, rally and take positions on matters of moral and ethical concern that we believe strengthen our civic life or undermine it. We may without fear of the loss of our tax-exempt status advocate for public policies that reinforce our spiritual values or oppose them when they don’t.
If religious leaders and their institutions were to endorse candidates and become partisans in the political process, we would become only one more special interest group for politicians to pander to. Some politicians crave the support of religious leaders and organizations. After all, when it’s not just human endorsement they can claim, but also divine approval, what more could you ask for? Some politicians already curry favor with pastors by putting them on advisory councils, attending their prayer breakfasts and sometimes even speaking in their churches.
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. wisely said, “The church must be reminded that it is neither the master nor the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.” When we give up our power to speak prophetically to those with political power, we give up the one precious gift that is ours. We would be like the foolish Esau who hungered to be fed in the moment and gave up his birthright to Jacob for a mess of pottage.
Calling upon political leaders to act wisely is part of our calling. Applying that same standard to ourselves will keep us from hypocrisy. We shouldn’t need an amendment to remind us of that, but happily we still have one just in case.