President Donald Trump recently pledged, once again, to dump restrictions on church political activity, a move that a local pastor fears would make religious institutions “beholden to the money that is dragging our politics around” and risks “sacrilegious” idolizing of political parties over worshiping the Gospel of Christ.
Matt DuVall, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Rome, stands at odds with removing the so-called “Johnson Amendment,” an integral law to the Baptists’ “commitment to the separation of church and state,” he wrote in an email.
Trump reignited the issue two weeks ago when he used the National Prayer Breakfast to repeat his campaign pledge to “totally destroy” a rarely enforced 1954 law that threatens religious and many other nonprofit entities with the loss of their tax-exempt status if they engage in explicit electioneering, such as endorsing candidates or spending money advertising in a ballot initiative campaign.
“It would be interesting to see how many pastors and churches who would argue for the dissolution of the ‘Johnson Amendment’ would still want to keep their tax-exempt status and would want the tax breaks that ministers receive for housing, etc.,” DuVall said.
If pastors wish to support political candidates and become pitchmen for political parties, DuVall says, then they should give up their tax-exempt status; because if the limits are removed, where will their political involvement end?
“Would that mean that lobbyists could come and purchase airtime in your sermons? Would they sit with you in your study and offer their critique and edits to your sermons? Would campaign donors write your prayers?” he asks. “Would PACs hang banners over the communion table and would we pause for their commercials before the children’s sermon? Would they be allowed to put inserts into the worship bulletin?”
Trump’s leaning toward fewer limits could have sweeping effects that extend beyond his conservative supporters to more liberal congregations, including the black evangelical church that has long been a key component of the Democratic Party’s electoral machinery.
Yet many prominent black religious leaders say they like the law the way it is.
And across the spectrum there are questions about whether churches could be pulled into the campaign finance vortex and effectively become “dark money” committees that play partisan politics without disclosing donors.
“This opens up a can of worms that would undermine the church’s moral authority,” said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where civil rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached.
The moral compass
The Rev. Robert Brown, of Rome First United Methodist Church, says churches have long been engaged in politics to some degree, and the law — named for its original sponsor, then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson — does not actually prevent churches or their leaders from weighing in on issues of the day.
From encouraging people to vote to taking action on cultural issues or guiding parishioners on issues of justice, churches set the moral compass, Brown says, a lesson taken from the civil rights movement. However, he delineates the importance of churches “not to be morally neutral, but politically neutral.”
Brown said that when looking at the balance of history and the intent of Johnson and Congress when the bill was passed, “By placing encumbrance on houses of worship,” they codified the sentiment of “be about your business and let the political process be the political process.” It was an exchange agreement, he added, churches withdrew from exerting open political prowess and for that enjoy the benefit of not having their property taxed.
Republican and Democratic politicians are fixtures in pews during election season. Theologically conservative evangelicals often emphasize opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage and their unyielding support for Israel — all Republican hallmarks. More liberal evangelicals often tout “social justice,” advocating policies that reflect the Democratic Party. Voices of the Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches can be found in both camps.
Warnock said faith and politics necessarily mix.
“You can’t advocate for the poor,” he said, “without being political.” But he said there’s a difference between pushing policy and backing candidates.
DuVall says that “to be a church in this world is to be engaged in politics at a certain level.”
“When we move out beyond the walls of our congregations in service and ministry, we engage the powers and principalities and the forces of this world that subjugate and dehumanize and create and isolate the ‘least of these,’” he continued.
Fostering a better dialogue
The president frames the law as an assault on religious freedom, but DuVall says it provides churches the liberty to open up and speak freely about issues in an amicable fashion, something that seems to be lost in the acrimonious partisan interchanges of the day.
“I think the ‘Johnson Amendment’ actually helps nurture the kind of space in a congregation where we can actually talk about the things that should concern us as Christians which are the things that Jesus called us to be concerned about,” DuVall said. “If the Johnson amendment were stripped away, then we might be the First Republican Baptist Church or the First Democrat Baptist Church.
“Rather than engaging the issues of the world through the lens of Christ like we are called to do, we would have an echo chamber of one party’s talking points, and that doesn’t leave much room for creativity.”
Under the current law, Brown believes churches can continue to honor the political process and the faith community’s influence, but “We don’t need to be in the driver’s seat.”
Indiana University professor Brad Fulton, who studies political activity in the U.S. religious community, cited research that suggests liberal congregations actually have become more politically active in recent years. Conservative evangelical congregations, meanwhile, appear to have become less so in the decades since the Christian Coalition and Moral Majority movement blossomed to the benefit of Republicans. Those conclusions come from the National Congregations Study, an academic project that tracks activities including hosting political speakers, registering voters and distributing issue-based voter guides.
Fulton said that, of course, some black evangelicals want to make explicit endorsements, while some white evangelicals are wary.
But many prominent black pastors note that their movement never worked in an organized way to jettison the Johnson rule when Democrats were in the White House or in charge on Capitol Hill. Most of the loudest voices for repeal are white conservative evangelicals who cast the law as an unconstitutional muzzle.
‘A cloud of confusion’
The Rev. Mark Harris, a Trump supporter and senior pastor of Charlotte First Baptist Church in North Carolina, said a repeal would “lift a cloud of confusion” he says silences too many pastors. Harris endorsed Trump from his pulpit last fall and participates in Pulpit Freedom Sundays, periodic occasions where hundreds of evangelical ministers openly flout Internal Revenue Service regulations for churches.
In reference to the impetus for a repeal being based on removing confusion, DuVall says church leaders should focus more on their religious message than their political one.
“If there are ministers who are confused as to what they can and can’t do when it comes to politics from the pulpit, then I would suggest that those ministers spend more time focusing on the Gospel,” he explained. “It probably means that they are trying to get away with something and that probably means that they are more interested in shaping God into their own image or into the image of their political party.”
The conservative Family Research Council is among the national lobbying groups backing a proposal, now pending in Congress, to allow pastors to back candidates and take positions in their official capacity. Its backers insist they don’t want to give churches unfettered freedom to spend money in the political arena.
Warnock called the distinction “naive.” Even a narrow tweak, he said, could foster an atmosphere where campaign financiers “purchase endorsements” from churches and secretly funnel money through offering plates for partisan advertising.
Unlike political committees that back specific candidates, religious entities don’t have to disclose donors publicly.
Fulton, the Indiana professor, said the “much larger implications” of Trump’s idea have nothing to do with “verbal endorsements,” but instead the possibility of religious entities financing political campaigns and ballot initiatives in “unlimited amounts, while maintaining their tax exempt status.”
Moreover, contributions to churches are tax-deductible for the donors, unlike contributions to entities legally structured as political committees. That raises the possibility of tax write-offs effectively subsidizing political activity that is now disallowed.
The White House did not respond to questions about whether Trump wants only a narrow allowance for endorsements or more sweeping changes.
In North Carolina, meanwhile, Trump-supporter Harris shrugged off any concerns about pastors or their congregations being compromised: “I don’t see the church becoming one big Super PAC.”
For Brown, talk of taking away the Johnson rule is nothing more than conjecture at this point, he says, and it misidentifies what are truly pressing issues. As a society, we should focus more on “what makes for equality for all than to champion one candidate over another.”
Pointing to the foster care crisis in Floyd County and Georgia as a whole, Brown asks, “What are we going to do for those in our midst who are homeless, marginalized.”
Meanwhile, while talk and action of repeal move forward, DuVall says he and the members of First Baptist will continue to do their best to follow Jesus, but also do as churches have done for years — questioning the elements of society and seeking the answers that God may provide.
“And that conversation is inherently political because it asks us to engage the powers that keep things as they are in the hopes that God will shape things into how they should be,” he said.
Rome News-Tribune Night Editor Spencer Lahr contributed to this Associated Press report by National Political Writer Bill Barrow.