Politicking and pulpits—setting the historical context

John Steuart Curry's 'Tragic Prelude,' (1938-40) a mural in the Kansas Statehouse illustrating abolitionist John Brown and the clash of forces in 'Bleeding Kansas.'

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Because of a senator’s action in 1954, churches have been included with certain other tax-exempt organizations restricted from electioneering—publicly endorsing or working against candidates for political office.

The prohibition against political campaign intervention by nonprofits that qualify under the tax exemption became part of the Internal Revenue Service tax code in 1954 when then-Texas Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson introduced it during a floor debate.

‘The History of the Johnson Amendment,’ a video produced by the Alliance Defending Freedom.Although some groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom—formerly the Alliance Defense Fund—believe Johnson posited the tax code addition as a means to stop political challengers, no historical record of the senator’s reasoning exists.

The Senate held no hearings, neither asked for nor received testimony, and did not seek input from not-for-profit organizations before incorporating Johnson’s proposal into the tax code.

No proof exists the prohibition was targeted at political campaign intervention by religious organizations, a 2008 Pew Forum study found.

How politically involved were churches in the past? People of faith have been involved politically, especially following the Great Awakenings or Great Revival of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

First in Europe and then in America, religious leaders turned to social responsibility and socio-political activity, preaching against slavery and other societal ills. Fiery sermons and social treatises were widely circulated in printed form.

American pastors usually didn’t hesitate to criticize political leaders. Sermons berating Thomas Jefferson for being a deist and William Howard Taft as a Unitarian were common. During the 1928 presidential election, many vilified Al Smith because he was a Catholic.

Not only were religious leaders politically active. They also used the pen in an effort to communicate to as wide an audience as possible.

Press freedom and preachers

“It is almost forgotten in our more secular times that many of the early advocates of freedom of the press were preachers and proselytizers whose religious zeal—and the writings that poured from their pens—place them solidly in the tradition of the world’s first ‘journalists,’” noted Doug Underwood, a former political and legislative reporter for the Seattle Times and a congressional correspondent for the Gannett News Service, in his book, From Yahweh to Yahoo! The Religious Roots of the Secular Press.

irs logo200Social and cultural concern among people of faith has taken two primary forms—volunteerism and political activism. Some believers exercise faith by serving the poor or victims of crime. Others organize interest groups to lobby local, state or national legislatures, or serve in public office.

All faith traditions teach their followers the acceptable marks of discipleship—lifestyle that resists compartmentalizing religious life from political and social life. There is no distinction, and each is a part of the other.

“It is always good to feed the hungry; it is better if possible to eradicate the causes of hunger. So if we truly love our neighbors, and want to serve them, our service may oblige us to take (or solicit) political action on their behalf,” theologian John Stott wrote in Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today.

Chuch and State Separation

Organizations that support the IRS restrictions on churches and religious organizations cite separation of church and state as the primary reason.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State andbrent walker130Brent Walker the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty stress the need to keep the “wall of separation” in place between religion and the state. They concentrate primarily on houses of worship and ministers, rather than on religious not-for-profit organizations. Maintaining that wall will guarantee freedom for everyone, they insist.

That wall also maintains the integrity of houses of worship. “Pulpit politicking threatens to divide congregations and communities and replace the theological mission of the church with one focused on partisanship and division,” the AU notes on its website. Americans United also actively turns in houses of worship for IRS scrutiny whenever it believes any have broken the tax rules.

The Baptist Joint Committee emphasizes church-state separation as the political/constitutional means to protect religious liberty. Houses of worship should not try to influence government, and government should keep a neutral stance toward religion.

BJC: Separation of church and state has resulted in ‘a vibrant religion, a plush pluralism and a vital democracy.’

“The institutional and functional separation of church and state has resulted in a vibrant religion, a plush pluralism and a vital democracy,” the BJC says on its website.

However, some conservative Christian legal activists, notably the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Liberty Council, have declared Johnson’s IRS amendment unconstitutional for four reasons.

First, they believe the amendment violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause because it requires the government to “excessively and pervasively monitor” speech that takes place in religious contexts. “The amendment allows the government to determine when truly religious speech becomes impermissibly ‘political,’” the Alliance Defending Freedom declared.

Second, it violates the Free Speech Clause “because it requires the government to discriminate against speech based solely on the content of the speech.”

Third, it further violates freedom of speech because a condition of receiving a tax exemption requires an organization to refrain from addressing certain topics.

Fourth, the Johnson amendment violates the Free Exercise Clause because “it substantially burdens a church’s exercise of religion” but without a “compelling reason” to do so, the Alliance notes on its website.

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