Trump, the Johnson Amendment and Faith Leaders: Why I thought it was a good idea

President Trump signs an Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty during the National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., on May 4, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Carlos Barria

On May 4, 2017, the National Day of Prayer, President Trump signed an executive order that will direct the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to exercise “maximum enforcement discretion” so that religious organizations and other non-profits are not subject to punishment for expressing political views during campaign seasons. The point for the executive order, to protect and promote religious liberty by ensuring that those who wish to engage in political speech are free to do so, and it protects employers that wish to be exempt from birth control coverage in Obamacare.

For historical context, then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson in 1954 sought to weaken organizations that politically opposed him — so he conditioned all such organizations’ tax-exempt status on their remaining silent in political matters.

Subsequently, years later, the Free Speech Fairness Act was introduced in the House of Representatives last year by Majority Whip Steve Scalise, (R-La). It was reintroduced in the present Congress with a companion Senate version sponsored by Sen. James Lankford, (R-Okla.) The bill allows faith leaders to preach, or use very politicized speech from the pulpit. The bill also allows all tax-exempt organizations to engage in speech during their ordinary activities, if they don’t spend money on such speech.

Originally, I didn’t think the repeal of the Johnson Amendment was a bad idea, as my initial thought centered on allowing more religious minority groups to have their voices heard more in the public square. With the current attack on Muslim and Jewish communities, repeal of this amendment would, so I thought, allow faith leaders to be at the forefront of shaping public debate, especially since Evangelical Christians — the days of Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority have dominated the intersection of religion and politics.

I have always known that faith leaders, including many in the black church tradition have always been vocal about political and social issues of our time. But, after further thought and study, it occurred that once faith leaders become aligned with or endorse a particular cause or candidate they risk being autonomous, and more importantly they jeopardize their moral and prophetic authority and thus become partisan puppets for politicians and parties.

Churches, temples, mosques, and other houses of worships are not political action committees. What is further telling is that in a February 2017 survey, the National Association of Evangelicals found that nearly 90 percent of evangelical leaders, President Trump’s top faith supporters, do not think pastors should endorse politicians nor engage in political activity from the pulpit.

I, like other pastors see the political pitfall that would come with political endorsements — political divisions and divides within the congregations, distractions from the core mission of faith and a weakening of the Gospel as well as other unseen challenges. Furthermore, what’s undergirding this is the idea that the church or other places of worship are just another place to hear and run a political ad. This repeal could also potentially lend itself to politicians who often enjoy friendly relationships with local faith leaders to pressure them into using their pulpits for campaign speeches creating further rifts in our already fractured country.

I am an advocate for religion and politics and adamantly believe that believers of faith, including those I disagree with theologically and politically should have their voices prominently in the public square. Further, I believe in religious liberty and freedom, but paving a road — either through legislation or executive order for politicians to politick more easily in houses of worship and faith leaders acting as ‘holy’ mouthpieces for politicians does not augur well for religion or politics. Nor does it make us more religiously free, but rather religiously and politically oppressed.

Reverend Professor Quardricos Bernard Driskell, a graduate of Morehouse College and Harvard Divinity School, an adjunct professor of religion and politics at The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management, and associate pastor of the historic Beulah Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA. Follow him on Twitter @q_driskell4