Politics in the Pulpit
by Rev. Dustin Bartlett
February 3, 02017
Among my colleagues, there’s been a lot of buzz around the possibility of repealing the Johnson Amendment, and the responses are mixed. Some of my fellow pastors are excited about it. Some aren’t sure what to think. Some think it’s a terrible idea that could be the final nail in the coffin for authentic Christianity in America. I’m in that last camp.
For those of you who don’t work in non-profits and have never heard of the Johnson Amendment, it’s an amendment to the tax code which governs how 501(c)(3) organizations can and cannot engage in political activity. For my fellow pastors and myself, the Johnson Amendment prohibits giving church funds to political candidates, and prohibits endorsing or attacking political candidates from the pulpit.
So why do I think repealing the Johnson Amendment is a terrible idea? Although supporters of its repeal argue that it’s a free speech issue (more on that later), it’s really more of a campaign finance issue. Churches, and other 501(c)(3) organizations, don’t pay taxes, and contributions to them are tax-deductible. And because of their tax-exempt status, churches have minimal reporting requirements; they really don’t have to open their books to outsiders. Essentially, repealing the Johnson Amendment would create a loophole by which people could give unlimited, tax-deductible contributions to political candidates without having to disclose any of it. And I’m sure you’ll agree that there’s already enough secret money in politics as it is.
Not only that, but instead of “lead me not into temptation,” churches would be leading themselves directly into it. It wouldn’t be long before a church figured out they could pay for the long-overdue repairs to their building if only they would endorse the most well-funded candidates and recruit church members to volunteer for their campaigns. Whether or not those candidates’ platforms aligned with the values of the Gospel (and none of them ever do, completely) may or may not be considered.
But ultimately, repealing the Johnson Amendment is totally unnecessary to guarantee the right of free speech. Churches have been weighing in on political issues since there have been churches. You need look no further than Martin Luther King Jr., Jerry Falwell, Al Sharpton, James Dobson, Russell Moore, etc. to see that Christian leaders are regularly engaged in social and political issues that concern them. Pastors can already talk openly about – and preach openly about – social issues; they just can’t mention specific candidates by name. And in my experience, it’s not necessary to do so.
I’ve been accused of preaching sermons that were for, or against, a particular political candidate even though I never actually mentioned those candidates in my sermon. You see, the thing about politicians who act in ways that are contrary to the Gospel is that when the Gospel is actually preached, it can sound like it’s directed at them. Lately I’ve been repeating over and over, to anyone who will listen, that the welcoming and sheltering of refugees is a Christian principle, repeated throughout the scriptures and taught by Jesus himself. Some people take my words about a Biblical mandate to care for refugees to be a dig against a particular politician, but it is only insofar as that politician is or is not being faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ. And trust me, there’s plenty of that kind of criticism for politicians of both parties to go around.
When things like truth-telling, welcoming outcasts, caring for the poor, setting free the oppressed, maintaining sexual fidelity, avoiding violence, and protecting the sanctity of human life have become political issues, then the church has no choice but to speak on political issues because these are precisely the issues the church has always spoken about. And the church will continue to do so. And I believe that America, and the world, will be better for it.
But the church does it best when it is an independent voice, not beholden to a particular political party or to corporate donors. The church, at its best, informs the decisions of politicians by the will and word of God. The church, at its worst, is shaped by the wills and words of politicians. And again, there’s already plenty of that, among liberal and conservative churches, going around.