The Separation of Evangelicals and State

This week, at the National Prayer Breakfast, Trump promised to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment. This would allow churches to remain tax-exempt while actively promoting political discourse from the pulpit. Obviously this is troubling for many people and certainly would go against the ideal of a separation of church and state, but it is not something Trump can do on his own nor is it likely to change much.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m completely against it, but the fact remains many churches do cross the line into politics and the IRS rarely (incredibly rarely) enforces the amendment. Furthermore, I find it hypocritical of many Democrats to vehemently oppose the abolition of the amendment while many Democratic candidates (including HRC last fall) attend church services while campaigning. This is particularly true among majority-black churches. While relevant, that is a discussion for another time. Today, however, I want to focus on my experience in an evangelical church as it relates to politics.

Honestly there isn’t much to focus on as I really cannot recall much political talk growing up. I believe this is likely due to the politics of the area I grew up in. Today Kentucky is considered a red state and Trump did win the state overwhelmingly. However, this has not always been the case. Bill Clinton won the state twice and my home county voted for Gore (it’s been all red since, though). Kentucky also routinely elected Democratic governors and, until the past election, Kentucky was the only state not completely controlled by Republicans (the Kentucky House of Representatives was the last to fall into GOP hands). Democrats still outnumber Republicans in Kentucky when it comes to voter registration, but the vast majority of these Democrats are simply too lazy to change their registrations and routinely vote for Republicans. I could discuss this political realignment at length, but the point is, unlike many evangelical-majority areas, the area I grew up in was primarily controlled by Democrats.

I believe the lack of political discourse in my church was primarily due to this interesting political alignment. Unsurprisingly, certain social issues were condemned from the pulpit (abortion and gays), but other than praying for our leaders there was no promotion of any particular politicians or political parties. The one instance of political expression I remember was sometime after the invasion of Iraq when a soldier’s father, while praying, made it clear he did not think highly of W. or the war. I remember this because it took me by surprise, because my very Republican family very strongly supported W. and the war and this prayer made clear there was a liberal in our midst. Looking back it is likely the man was not liberal, not in the least bit, but was against a war that threatened his son’s life in a foreign country on the other side of the earth. That makes perfect sense to me, today, but not so much when I was a teenager being raised by very Republican parents.

It’s entirely possible the church has become more politically vocal now and I am certain that the vast majority of congregants voted for Trump. I, of course, can not be sure because I know very little about what goes on there anymore. I am very curious about their thoughts on Trump’s Muslim ban and what they think about refugees in general. The fact that churches in the Southern Baptist Convention are independent and autonomous means that, even though the SBC passed a resolution last summer at their annual meeting encouraging its members to welcome and adopt refugees, individual churches may hold much different views. The church I grew up in has many congregants who believe the SBC is too liberal and who have openly discussed the possibility of leaving it. This is a sentiment shared by many people in churches in the area who are similarly very rigid, and, in my opinion, very un-Christ-like.

While repealing the Johnson Amendment would be incredibly troubling, I don’t believe churches in rural Kentucky would conduct themselves much differently. The biggest offenders would likely be mega churches in suburbs across the country, which are much more influential and have a much larger cash flow. Of course this is just my experience in one rural, evangelical church and it may not be representative of a majority of churches in the country. Regardless, pay special attention to the disintegration of the separation of church and state in this country in addition to the vilification of other religions. It seems as if we are going to have to fight to keep this country from becoming a theocratic, authoritarian state and I sincerely hope that my experiences will better help you understand the mindset of the other side.