Politics in the pulpit: Who benefits?

February 15th, 2017

Earlier this month at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Donald Trump announced to the gathered religious leaders a plan to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 provision in the tax code that prohibits non-profit organizations, including churches, from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Amidst my friends and colleagues, this garnered a decidedly mixed response. On the heels of a divisive and seemingly endless election season, there were times when I had to watch what I said from the pulpit, particularly when the gospel was not very subtle in its opposition to the rhetoric from certain political candidates.

One complaint about the Johnson Amendment, at least as it pertains to churches, is that it isn’t enforced. Some churches play fast and loose with crossing the line, knowing that their politically homogenous congregations likely won’t report them. For years, the Alliance Defending Freedom has held “Pulpit Freedom Sundays” where clergy openly defy the Johnson Amendment, daring the Internal Revenue Service to revoke their non-profit (and, thus, tax-free) status. Some conservative groups view the Johnson Amendment as an affront to their right to free speech and religious liberty and welcome its repeal.

The word “politics” derives from the Greek “polis” meaning “city-state” but also “citizenship” or “body of citizens,” so politics has to do with our communal life together. Understood that way, there is no doubt our gathering together as Christians on Sundays to sing, pray, read and interpret Scripture, and participate in the sacraments together is political.

As a young woman, the mere fact of my presence in a pulpit or blessing bread and wine is political. There is no avoiding politics in church, whether in the pulpit or gathered around the table. The presence of individual bodies  young and old, rich and poor, black and white, differently abled, male and female  all radically welcomed and making up the Body of Christ is political.

The struggle comes when those politics become partisan, when the message of the gospel is reduced to the platform of a political party or candidate, and most Christians, clergy and laity, don’t want that at church. In 2015, a Lifeway study found that 79% of Americans thought clergy should not endorse candidates during worship services. Many churches, like mine, are politically divided, and endorsing a candidate from the pulpit could only lead to more divisiveness and hard feelings.

Repealing the Johnson Amendment would go beyond freedom of speech, however, and into the realm of campaign finance. Contributions to the church are tax-deductible, and if the Johnson Amendment were repealed, churches could turn around and use those monies to support political candidates. The possibility is that churches could turn into a less transparent version of a Super Political Action Committee (Super PAC).

When discussing this issue that touches on freedom of speech and worship, tax-exemption, and campaign finance, it is worth asking, “Who benefits from this?” Does the Johnson Amendment prevent my clergy colleagues and me from worshipping and preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen? Would its repeal help increase the knowledge and love of the Lord among the citizens of the United States? Or would it continue to damage to the witness of the church as the Body of Christ if it aligned itself with partisan politics in search of more worldly power and influence? The repeal of the Johnson Amendment does not help the church or the spreading of the gospel, but it could hurt it. Conversely, it would greatly benefit our partisan political system. Behind the noble values of freedom of worship and freedom of speech hides an insatiable thirst for more power and money.

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