Several weeks ago, on the “National Day of Prayer”, President Trump signed an executive order titled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” It directs the IRS not to take “adverse action” against churches and tax-exempt entities who are involved in political activity. It stops short of allowing churches to endorse political candidates and maintain their tax exempt status. Only a repeal of the 1954 Johnson Amendment could do that.
The Johnson Amendment restricts faith groups and tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or explicitly opposing political candidates. Such groups can lose their tax-exempt status if they are found endorsing politicians, but this reality has rarely occurred (maybe once in 60 years).
There are other important results that impact other non-profit organizations. However, I want to limit my reaction to how it impacts the church.
In signing the executive order, the president offered these thoughts: We must never infringe on the noble tradition of change from the church and progress from the pew. Under my administration, free speech does not end at the steps of a cathedral or a synagogue or any other house of worship. We are giving our churches their voices back and we are giving them back in the highest form.
Pastors and churches are already free to offer opinions about social, political, and religious issues of our day. In that regard, the church has always had “its voice.” The church maintains a prophetic role in our culture to speak “truth to power.” However, churches cannot endorse candidates without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.
Amanda Tyler, Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said that the president’s act was largely a symbolic one. However there was a greater concern relating to the weakening of the Johnson Amendment. She writes, “getting rid of the protection of law that insulates 501(c)(3) organizations from candidates pressing for endorsements would destroy our congregations and charities from within over disagreements on partisan campaigns.”
What has Baptists (not as many Southern Baptists) concerned is that this is a step toward weakening the Johnson amendment. Congress would have to enact such a change, but the president has signaled that he is open to this course of action.
In my view, this would be compromising the prophetic voice that the church should have in exchange for obtaining favor from political groups. It would also expose the church to lobbyists who could seek to influence pastors (and their churches) through financial means.
On a church level, this executive order is a distinction without a difference. It offers protections for religious liberty that are already in place. As I said earlier, the impact on other non-profits and their constituents may be more pronounced. However, this action won’t impact how we go about doing church.
Some churches might see this as an opportunity to be more aggressive in their involvement in political action committees or political candidates. One columnist I like to read said the president’s action could lead to “red churches and blue churches.”
I am not so naive to think that each of us has his/her own political viewpoints and enjoys sharing them. But, our church as a whole cherishes the historical Baptist distinctive of the separation of church and state.
As Tony Campolo said, “Mixing the government and the church is like mixing manure and ice cream. It doesn’t do much to the manure but it sure destroys the ice cream.”
I recently signed an open letter by the Baptist Joint Committee to urge Congress to maintain support for the Johnson amendment. The church and state much remain separate. The church always loses when infringed upon by the state.