The longtime debate over how far is too far when it comes to churches and their leaders talking politics, specifically as it relates to endorsing or seeming to endorse specific candidates, resurfaced in the most recent presidential campaign. A handful of evangelical pastors stepped out to publicly endorse then-candidate Donald Trump.
While pastors of different faith groups follow varying strategies related to endorsing or not endorsing and while candidate Hillary Clinton also received endorsements from clergy, Southern Baptists have traditionally treaded carefully in this area.
But could the conversation be changing?
President Trump sparked discussion on the topic following his “totally destroy” comments at the Feb. 2 National Prayer Breakfast related to the Johnson Amendment.
The Johnson amendment, named after Lyndon B. Johnson when he initiated the measure as a U.S. senator, was enacted in 1954 and prohibits 501(c)(3) groups from participating in partisan politics.
It forbids churches, universities and charities from endorsing or opposing candidates or contributing to their campaigns. The amendment does, however, allow churches to engage in voter education initiatives.
Violates tax-exempt status
Violation of the measure risks the tax-exempt status these groups enjoy.
And this has been the routine for many, if not most, Southern Baptist churches for more than 60 years.
Two polls in recent years also indicate the majority of Americans don’t want their pastors or churches endorsing candidates.
A LifeWay Research survey conducted in September 2015 showed 79 percent of Americans think it is inappropriate for pastors to endorse a candidate in a church meeting. In addition, 75 percent say churches should not make endorsements.
A mid-2016 Pew Research study showed 66 percent of Americans oppose church endorsements.
Only 45 percent of black Protestants and 37 percent of white evangelicals surveyed said they thought it was OK for churches to endorse political candidates.
“Most Americans draw the line at church endorsements of specific candidates,” wrote Gregory A. Smith with Pew Research. “[This] is roughly stable with other readings taken over the past eight years.”
As far as discussing politics in general the Pew survey showed 49 percent said they should stay away from political topics altogether while 47 percent of Americans thought churches should be able to express their views.
The question of how much pastors can and should say will be debated with the newly introduced legislation that would hand pastors back the right to speak politically.
The legislation — introduced in the U.S. House and Senate on Feb. 1 by House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, and Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma — would amend the Johnson Amendment.
Lankford, a Southern Baptist, said in introducing his bill, “The federal government and the IRS should never have the ability to inhibit free speech.
“The First Amendment right of free speech and right to practice any faith or no faith are foundational American values that must extend to everyone whether they are a pastor, social worker or any charity employee or volunteer,” he said in a written release.
Rep. Jody Hice, R-Georgia, a former Southern Baptist pastor, said as a co-sponsor of the proposal, “[T]he IRS has used the Johnson Amendment to silence and threaten religious institutions and charitable entities.
“As a minister who has experienced intimidation from the IRS firsthand, I know just how important it is to ensure that our churches and nonprofit organizations are allowed the same fundamental rights as every citizen of this great nation,” Hice said in a written statement.
Some supporters of the legislation believe pastors and churches — and not the federal government — should be the ones to decide what they say from the pulpit regarding elections while also believing pastors and churches should not make endorsements. Announcing support for a political candidate could harm the gospel outreach and ministry of the church, they say.
Campaigning not allowed
Scalise said Feb. 1 during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol, “The IRS has hung like a cloud over the free speech rights of so many organizations, threatening to take away their tax-exempt status if they disseminated a message that was important to their congregation. That’s not the role of government. That’s not the kind of separation of powers that exists in the Constitution to allow people to express their religious beliefs.”
Lankford added that the legislation does not permit churches and 501(c)(3) organizations to participate in political campaigning.
The bill simply protects political activities that are within the boundaries of the “organization’s regular and customary activities so long as the activities carry out the organization’s tax-exempt purpose,” according to the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group.
A number of religious leaders also were present for the introduction of the legislation, including Pastor Jim Garlow of Skyline Church, San Diego, California, who cited Barna Group statistics showing that 90 percent of pastors believe the Bible talks about political issues but only 1 out of 10 feel comfortable speaking about them.
Hernan Castano, who serves as pastor of a minority church in Houston, Texas, told those present at the press conference that he understands persecution. He was 1 of 5 Houston-area pastors whose sermons were subpoenaed by the mayor with the threat of fine or prison time, according to The Christian Post.
The move was in response to their opposing Houston’s LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) nondiscrimination ordinance, which opened bathrooms and locker rooms for use on the basis of gender identity rather than biological gender.
“We need to repeal the Johnson Amendment because I have seen the faces of pastors … (and) the fear of their heart holding them back from speaking truth,” Castano said. “I have seen them hold back from what will make a difference for their own people.”
While many support the move to reverse the restrictions in the Johnson Amendment, others fear it could warp the character of churches.
“It’s not going to bring civility or a moral compass to government but it would do a lot to diminish the moral compass of churches,” said Bill Stanfield, the CEO of Metanoia, a faith-based nonprofit that provides housing, job creation, community improvements and other ministries in North Charleston, South Carolina.
Metanoia has long practiced keeping its partnerships with local and federal government organizations separate from its religious underpinnings, Stanfield said. Some of its asset-based, community-driven work is funded with federal housing grants, which is allowed under the law. It’s also acceptable to appeal to public officials to seek government partnerships when attempting to address solutions to systemic challenges in communities.
“Churches and organizations ought to be engaged around issue-based advocacy and say we want our public officials to think about these particular issues in particular ways,” he said. “But that’s different than saying we like a certain mayor and that you ought to vote for that person.” (TAB BNG, BP, The Christian Post)