There’s a social dynamic that is no stranger to history and seems especially at work in our country today, but is too seldom talked about.
Let’s take a look at a few institutions.
First, there are public schools. The fundamental ideal of public schools is to educate our citizens without regard to race, religion, socioeconomic status, etc. It is where we not only impart knowledge but teach critical thinking and other skills of independent citizens. This ideal has never been fully realized in practice or flawlessly implemented, but it is the tool we have.
Second, there’s newspapers and journalism. Their fundamental ideal is to inform the public of what is going on in contemporary society as well as hold elected officials accountable. Yes, newspapers and journalists are flawed and biased, but they are the tool we have.
Then, there’s immigration. We are a nation of immigrants. Immigrants enrich our culture, fill both highly skilled and unskilled jobs, and even the undocumented pay billions in taxes. Yes there are problems, but immigration fundamentally diversifies our country.
Last but not least, there is the church. Oh yes, the church is flawed and has on too many occasions failed to reflect the God of love whom it proclaims. But the church has also been an incredible force for good, founding many of our major schools, hospitals, and humanitarian organizations. More fundamentally, the church is (supposed to be) the conscience of society and its stubborn reminder of every person’s intrinsic value and that the world does not belong to us.
Public schools educate society. Newspapers inform society. Immigration diversifies society. The church is the conscience of society.
But a diverse, educated and informed society with a conscience is a direct threat to powerful special interests. Lawmakers and other elected officials who are bribed by these powerful special interests have everything to lose from a diverse, educated and informed society with a conscience.
So the solution is simple: attack the institutions that produce this kind of society. Public education, the free press, and immigration have been under attack for some time now, although it has become much more overt and severe under the current administration.
But what about the church? According to the likes of Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr., the church is about to see some of its best days. Some believers have felt that the Church has been under threat from the secularization of culture and recent Supreme Court decisions and now see a much-sought-after turnaround. President Trump’s recent (and legally meaningless) executive order was said to “vigorously promote religious liberty” and came with a promise that “we will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore.”
As I argued in my April 2015 BNG column, contemporary usage of the term “religious freedom” is an obscene distortion of the original intent of such protections. But beyond that, President Trump’s recent executive order comes in the context of his explicitly-stated desire to see the Johnson Amendment repealed. This provision in the tax code was introduced by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. It was passed by a Republican-led Congress and largely uncontroversial at the time. It essentially bars tax-exempt organizations from directly endorsing or opposing political candidates running for office, by word or dollar. Organizations who violate this are supposed to be at risk of losing their tax-exempt status. The rule is not widely enforced and there have been some high profile examples of pastors defying and protesting it.
The Johnson Amendment does NOT in any way bar churches and ministers from speaking to the moral and ethical issues posed by legislation or the actions of elected officials. It does not say that churches cannot take a stance on issues of public policy. Rather, this rule of limited scope protects the separation of church and state and is essentially the government saying to churches, ‘So long as you don’t act as a political action committee, you won’t be regulated or taxed like one.’
The call for the repeal of the Johnson Amendment (which would require an act of Congress) has been couched in terms of protecting churches’ freedoms and taking the muzzle off their speech. It is nothing of the sort. It is, at best, an attempt by some elected officials to put the influence of the Church to use for their own purposes. It is, at worst, an attack by wolves in sheep’s clothing.
The Church in America already wields substantial political influence and enjoys wide-ranging protections on its activities and speech. But a church that has free reign to be a campaign surrogate and purchase political influence stands everything to lose and nothing to gain. Politicians have plenty to gain from it. Having already exploited the church for decades, they know that they could do so freely without the Johnson Amendment.
It would be a move that compromises the autonomy of the church, undermining what moral authority the church has left and ushering in a redux of Constantinian Christianity in which the church relinquishes the subversive, alternative Kingdom witness that characterized its earliest days. It would also cripple the fellowship of the church from within, as the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty astutely observed. Executive director Amanda Tyler wrote, “Getting rid of the protection in the 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.”
A church that spends time and resources on electing a certain person is a church that has forgotten who its Savior is and that His “kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). But a church that proclaims the values of the Kingdom, speaks truth to power, and holds the larger society morally accountable is a church that is right in line with the prophetic tradition recorded in Scripture …
… and a church that has not been fooled by a politician’s attempt to exploit it. Current attacks on things like education, journalism, and immigration are overt and explicit. But there is an attack on the church as well. It is coming from those who claim to be protecting it. May we not be fooled.