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Latest Trump gaffe: encouraging churches to be even more political

President Trump's call to allow churches to endorse political candidates shouldn't have a prayer. (AP photo)
President Trump's call to allow churches to endorse political candidates shouldn't have a prayer. (AP photo)
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Wednesday, February 08, 2017 09:01 pm
When a law is being ignored or abused, officials have a choice: They can rededicate themselves to vigorous and fair enforcement or they can repeal the statute entirely. President Donald Trump, in his all-too-common and overly bellicose call for the "destruction" of a 60-year-old law prohibiting tax-exempt churches from endorsing candidates, has chosen the latter approach. Unfortunately.

News reports suggest Trump's proposal to repeal the so-called  "Johnson Amendment" to the federal tax code has been sought primarily by conservative Christian leaders who believe the rule has been used selectively to keep them from speaking out. That's hardly an unfounded suspicion, given the Obama Internal Revenue Service's well-documented targeting of conservative groups and a recent poll suggesting that political activity during last year's presidential race was especially blatant in predominantly black Protestant congregations in support of Trump's opponent, Hillary Clinton.

The Pew Research Center reported that 9 percent of people who had attended recent religious services had heard clergy endorse a particular candidate and roughly 11 percent speak against a candidate. But 28 percent of people attending black Protestant services reported hearing their pastor endorse Clinton, while just 7 percent heard the opposite message. On the other hand, pastors at hundreds of churches have for years participated in "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" during which they openly engage in campaign talk in a program organized by the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom.

Such activity can expose churches to fines or a loss of their tax-exempt status, but rarely does — which is no doubt why so many pastors seem willing to bend rules that for the good of church and state alike should be strengthened, not obliterated.

Given the perception of unequal compliance and enforcement, it's not surprising why conservatives at the recent National Prayer Breakfast applauded when Trump contended the elimination of the amendment named for former President Lyndon Johnson would "allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution." But that's an overly political and simplistic description not only of current law but of the nature of faith itself.

Current law, after all, already allows churches and other religious organizations to speak out on issues and to identify candidates' positions on those issues. And that's as it should be: Although Christ did not create the church primarily to improve life on earth, the church's duty to proclaim the word of God compels it to speak out when the laws of God and men collide. Sometimes churches are faithful to that duty and sometimes they are not, but it not government's job to enforce theological purity. Nor does religious faith require Americans to give up their rights as citizens.

In other words, pastors have a sacred duty to preach God's word. They have the right as Americans to inform their congregation about candidates' positions relative to that word. But when pastors endorse or oppose individual candidates in their official capacity, they are suggesting God has dictated a proper position on everything from animal control to tax rates to national defense. And that's simply not the case. Most political issues allow Christians and members of other faiths a broad and legitimate range of conscience.

When the pastor talks about contemporary events at my racially, economically and geographically diverse church, members accept the teaching because he makes the link to Scripture clear. Without such a connection, any official discussion of politics or candidates could be divisive, to the detriment of the church and its mission to save souls. Removing the tax penalty for doing so could lead pastors and others into temptation best avoided.

And do we really want churches to be able to contribute to politicians — possibly expecting favors in return — just like everybody else?

The "wall of separation" metaphor Thomas Jefferson employed in his 1802 letter to a Baptist church in Connecticut has been interpreted by the courts and others as a means to protect government from church influence, but Jefferson intended to protect the church from the government — something needed now more than ever thanks to federal mandates dealing with everything from abortion and birth control to marriage and bathroom issues.

Churches would be best-served by remaining faithful to their creeds and demanding government officials remain faithful to the Constitution and laws they are sworn to defend. As Christ himself noted, God and Caesar each have their proper roles — and it's up to us to know which is which.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.


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