Why the Founding Fathers wanted to keep ministers from public office

(RNS) There’s an old Baptist saying that goes something like this: “If you mix horse manure and ice cream it doesn’t do much to the manure, but it sure does ruin the ice cream.”

I thought about this saying when I heard that Donald Trump was speaking in Orlando, Fla., to 700 evangelical pastors associated with the American Renewal Project.

The American Renewal Project is founded and directed by David Lane, a conservative Christian political activist and former Jerry Falwell Sr. operative who is trying to get 1,000 pastors to run for political office between 2016-2018.

Lane believes that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, but in recent decades it has lost its way. This is why pastors need to hold political office. They should be on the front lines of Lane’s grand project to restore Christian America.

Lane’s vision for renewal is rooted in a deeply flawed version of American history. Despite the fact that nearly every American historian in the country, including evangelical historians like myself, rejects the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, Lane continues to peddle this view. He manipulates the past for the purpose of his political agenda.

When Trump says “Make America Great Again,” it is hard to imagine Lane interpreting that phrase in any way other than as a call to reclaim a golden age that never existed.

Trump’s speech to Lane’s pastors assembled in Orlando did not focus specifically on clergy running for office. Instead he went after the so-called “Johnson Amendment,” a 1954 addition to the tax code stating, “organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” The amendment also notes, “Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”

Evangelicals like Lane see the Johnson Amendment as a hindrance to free speech and religious freedom. Trump joked that the repeal of the amendment may be his ticket to heaven, but his opposition to the amendment is probably motivated by more earthly goals. He wants evangelical pastors to endorse his candidacy without fear of punishment from the IRS.

There has been a lot of debate over how the Johnson Amendment has, or will, affect the speech rights of evangelical pastors who want to use their pulpits to endorse candidates. The amendment has rarely been enforced. Pastors have been using their authority to support political candidates for a long time. Moreover, the Johnson Amendment does not apply to individual pastors. It only applies to churches.

Since Lane likes to appeal to history in his efforts to get pastors more involved in the political process, it is worth noting that the American Founding Fathers had a few things to say about the topic.

The founders who crafted the original state governments — those governments celebrated by today's conservative politicians as the most important source of democratic life — thought it was a good idea for ministers to stay out of politics.

The state constitutions of North Carolina (1776), New York (1777), Georgia (1777), South Carolina (1778), Delaware (1792),Tennessee (1796), Maryland (1799), and Kentucky (1799) all banned clergymen from running for office.

The 1776 North Carolina Constitution states “that no clergyman, or preacher of the gospel of any denomination, shall be capable of being a member of either the Senate, House of Commons, or Council of State, while he continues in the exercise of the pastoral function.”

The 1777 New York Constitution uses similar language: “And whereas the ministers of the gospels are, by their profession, dedicated to the service of God and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their function; therefore, no minister of the gospel, or priest of any denomination whatsoever, shall, at any time hereafter, under any pretense of description whatever, be eligible to, or capable of holding, any civil or military office or place within this State."

The Founding Fathers understood something about the role of clergy in American society that Lane and his Christian nationalist friends do not. Those who care for the soul have a “great” spiritual duty that should never be compromised or tarnished by politics. This is why they thought that the “separation of church and state” was important.

For all those concerned about the witness of the Christian church in the world, let’s remember that the founders thought it was a bad idea to mix horse manure and ice cream.

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