On the Johnson Amendment

At the National Prayer Breakfast in February 2017, President Trump noted that he would stand with those who are calling for the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, which allows non-profit organizations (including churches) to be stripped of their tax-exempt status if they endorse a political candidate. And, indeed, two weeks ago, the White House circulated an Executive Order on religious liberty that included instructions for the IRS to “alleviate the burden” of the Johnson Amendment on religious institutions.

Some Important Notes

It’s first important to note that this is not a the same as a repeal: The Johnson Amendment remains part of the tax code and could still be enforceable through other avenues besides the IRS taking direct punitive measures. However, this move does seem to at least indicate that for the time being, the IRS will not seek to enforce the amendment in a pro-active manner during the course of their regular operations. It’s also worth noting that the Johnson Amendment has rarely ever actually been enforced. Until now, only one organization has ever lost tax-exempt status under it, so whether this order actually changes anything is unclear.

As an organization intent on equipping the Church to engage with the public square, we are excited that a conversation is brewing about the church’s relationship to politics. How we approach government and politics is a question for Christians in a representative democracy to wrestle with together. But while we understand the many ways in which weakening or eliminating the Johnson Amendment would be a tempting proposition, we think the concern about the Johnson Amendment is misplaced, and that repealing and/or reducing the Johnson Amendment diminishes what should be best practices for addressing politics in faith communities.

Criticisms Rooted in Fear

Some critics of the Johnson Amendment say that it leaves churches vulnerable to retribution from politicians or parties whose policies are at odds with church practices. Other critics want to see the Johnson Amendment removed so that pastors and other church leaders can be explicit in their support for particular candidates for public office without fear of political reprisal. Parishioners often ask for guidance in how to vote and they want pastors to be able to answer clearly rather than dance around their opinions, have have frank conversations rather than need to find manipulative and deceptive strategies for expressing their thoughts indirectly.

And while it is true that, for the sheer joy of never having to look at one more completely one-sided “voter guide” that looks more like a partisan sample ballot, we are tempted to join such critics as they call for repeal, these criticisms are also expressions of fear, and so should be questioned. In his second letter to his disciple Timothy, Paul challenges all leaders to not make their decisions out of a spirit of fear or timidness. We are called to live out of power, love and self-discipline. Our political positions and answers to the political questions need to come from this same source. We need to deny political positions that come from a spirit that is not from God. On this and any answer with political implications, we should flee from positions developed out of a spirit of fear. Fear draws out our worst inclinations while power, love and self-discipline will always draw out our best.

Endorsements Make Mission Harder

Most congregations in the US are ministering in communities where there are a mix of political views. Even in the politically “safest” towns for one party or another, thirty or forty percent of the vote routinely goes to “the other party” and a large number of neighbors sit the election out entirely. While this kind of diversity might make for a fractious town hall meeting, it has always actually been a strength of the church. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, he likens the church to a body with many parts and functions. Paul challenges the church at Corinth to revel in that diversity rather than fearing or resenting it.

An endorsement of a particular candidate from the pulpit (or from the stage) tells the surrounding community that your church is only a place for people who already agree with the pastor, or with most of the members. But people of shared faith can come to very different conclusions about today’s politics and still be called into community together. The Center for Christian Civics came together as leaders who love and serve the same God and as individuals with a shared faith but very different approaches to politics--at the same time! We not only believe people of different political opinions can participate in Christian community together, we believe that we can have healthier community and a better witness, both personally and corporately, in the full and open expression of our differences. We believe that churches where the congregation is politically diverse can both strengthen the congregants’ faith and strengthen their witness to their friends and neighbors.

Endorsements Accept The Present Age As It Currently Is

We are pilgrims, travellers passing through on a long walk toward a kingdom that is not of this world. Yet the same God who put us on this journey also calls us to invest in the healing and restoration of this home away from home while we are here. When we accept our culture’s terms of debate, we miss a crucial opportunity to draw a distinction between this world and the coming Kingdom. The church becomes more like the world around us rather than offering that world our God’s healing.

U.S. history is littered with the stories of Christians and Christian leaders living out a cautionary tale, slowly but surely conforming to the patterns of their party. Churches and their leaders who endorse candidates for public office deliberately make themselves vulnerable to the same plight. They eventually take on the image of the political party they support rather than helping the parties their church members belong to look more like the church.

Endorsements Hinder One of Our Greatest Apologetics: Empathy

Endorsements are binary, an all-or-nothing affair. You can explain why you made your endorsement with reservations, but in the end, you either endorse or you don’t--and candidates can either tell the world around them that they won your support or they can’t. Thus, endorsing sides in our biennial (or, in some states, annual) partisan warfare also has the unintended effect of implying to our congregations that we endorse not just a candidate, party or movement, but also the way they speak and behave. If a candidate with policies you approve of behaves poorly or exploits the growing instability, polarization and hatred in our communities, issuing an endorsement sends the message that joining them in their hatred is a small price to pay for being right.

But Christ did not say that God's Children would be known to be God’s by the “rightness” or “righteousness” of their political opinions and selections. Christ did not say that his followers would be known to be God’s by their ability to convince other people that they are right and others were wrong. And he certainly did not say that God’s Children would be known to be his children by their ability to judge everyone else who got it all wrong, or by their ability to honestly say, “Well don’t blame me--I didn’t vote for them!”

He said we would be known by our LOVE.

When we stand before our Creator and look back at our lives, including every single political position we ever took, we won’t be judged on if we were right or not. We won’t be judged on whether we were parts of the right groups or parties. Every time we seemed to do the right thing will be drowned out and rendered worthless if our actions were not saturated in love. If the Angels of Heaven sing "Hallelujahs" over the things we do, it is because we do them in ways that reflect the character of the God who is Love.

One way we can have love be more at the core of our politics is to practice empathy. Endorsements generally celebrate our allies while blanketly condemning both our opponents and those who don't feel like they have any good option in the election in question. Empathy puts ourselves in the position of those affected by our political ideologies. Empathy seeks out the stories that don’t just reinforce our political opinion but challenge it. It asks, “How does this position I hold affect other people, who are made in God’s image?” When we encounter political opposition, empathy pushes us into deeper conversation in an attempt to see the weaknesses in our approach through the eyes of our opponents. In the church, empathy gives birth to fellowship.

Endorsement Deprive Congregants of Opportunities to Grow

God has seen fit to place us in a time and place where our government is a representative democracy, a mode of government that wasn’t directly addressed in any of the biblical texts. Our democracy is made up of hundreds of millions of good but fallen people making some decisions together and supervising representatives who make other ones. We have to decide whether to take part in that process and, if so, how. Do we cast a vote? If so, for what levels of office? Which issues are you going to prioritize? And which approach to those issues makes the most sense to you? Beyond just voting, we have even more decisions to make about government: Will we sign a ballot measure? Collect signatures for it ourselves? How will we interact with our representatives between elections? Will we join a neighborhood watch? A PTA? A park restoration team? A protest?

Like every decision we make, these decisions about government and civil society need to be made with our best, prayerful wisdom, and made in light of what Christ has done for us. Our churches can equip us to work through these questions, and they can exhort us to be present and incarnated in our local communities or lay out a vision for how to witness well while maintaining separation. But issuing endorsements is a shortcut, skipping our brothers and sisters past the process of discernment. It takes away their God-given opportunity to wrestle with difficult questions together, to sharpen one another as iron sharpens iron.

Endorsements Downplay Responsibility

Every American has the opportunity to participate in a democratic experiment that is unique in human history. Unfortunately, too many of us think that our opportunities for civic responsibility begin and end on Tuesdays in November. For this experiment to work--perhaps even work well--far more is called for by citizens. Citizenship is a high calling with which we need to wrestle like Jacob wrestled God on the side of the Jordan River. It should be a question we raise each and every day as we ask, “What is my role in my community, my country?” Our God given responsibility of citizenship should lead us to hours of research, both in Scripture and in the world. It should lead us to seek out stories of those affected or who will be affected by a political proposal or idea. It should drive us toward more discussion and dialogue as we seek to understand and persuade. That is what citizenship looks like as it is nurtured. Ceding our decision-making responsibilities to someone else is citizenship neglected.

Citizenship hard. Politics is challenging to figure out on your own, let alone work through together. But it’s not an accident that we were placed in a country that vests us with these opportunities. Handling them well is an expression of our identities as disciples of Christ. And discipleship, sanctification of our hearts and minds, was never promised to be easy.