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Opinion: Will Tax Bill Open Church Doors Wider Still for Politics?

Knocking down the Johnson Amendment would cheapen America’s pluralism

Rep. Robert Pittenger’s new heavy-handed ad makes one wonder which constituents the North Carolina Republican will serve, Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Robert Pittenger’s new heavy-handed ad makes one wonder which constituents the North Carolina Republican will serve, Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A place of worship has never been completely clear of politics in America. But that physical and spiritual space for contemplation and reflection may grow smaller still, and moments without intrusion from the bitterness and division in the world could grow shorter.

Tucked into the House version of the tax plan that Republicans dearly crave as “a win” is a provision that would remove a check on places of worship — churches, synagogues and mosques — and some nonprofits. The in-danger Johnson Amendment of 1954, one with more intent than teeth, supposedly prohibits pastors and other faith leaders from endorsing or opposing political candidates from their perches of religious authority or risk losing their tax-exempt status.

If included in the Senate bill, just sent out of committee on a party-line vote, and then passed as part of a tax package, knocking down that amendment would be a promise kept by Donald Trump, one made to his base of evangelical voters. It would be a nod to the white conservative evangelicals who voted for him in great numbers and who have stuck by him through tweet and scandal.

Trump said he would “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution” in remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast — to which many said “amen,” with some since laying hands on him in support and prayer. That there is a prayer breakfast attended by presidents of every party in the United States, a country founded on pluralism and the freedom to belong to any religion or no religion at all, shows how smudged the line separating church and state truly is.

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It’s hard to envision Trump standing in a mosque making that same promise. The president who has become a standard-bearer for Christianity is also a man with multiple marriages and a record of insulting women and just about every minority group — reason to bow one’s head in astonishment rather than prayer. The president’s No. 2, Vice President Mike Pence, has described himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican — in that order.”

Already entangled 

Is repealing the Johnson Amendment a matter of free speech, as church leaders insist, or would it tarnish those churches, reducing them to well-financed political action committees, albeit ones with special tax breaks and the veneer of a higher power? Would dubious “churches” pop up to bankroll candidates while skirting pesky legal and financial oversight?

Faith leaders and congregants themselves disagree, with polls showing most wish things to remain as they have been.

In practice, separation is more illusion than reality, with priests, ministers, rabbis and imams freely offering instruction that can lead the faithful to a political as well as spiritual path.

While most churches don’t explicitly endorse or oppose candidates by name, many veer close to the line. In my Catholic church in Charlotte, North Carolina, I remember one parishioner stocking the narthex with a pre-election voter’s guide on issues, until complaints to the pastor made them disappear. Even now, the faithful search for churches most friendly to their personal preferences, whether they lean toward social justice, social conservatism or a gospel interpretation that tries to keep everyone happy. The inside joke is these church shoppers are “roamin’ Catholics,” choosing with their feet which church is “just right.”

Places of worship have always been free to preach a message based on that particular faith’s values, on issues such as charity, health care, abortion, the death penalty and others that can be logically traced to choices at the ballot box. Most, however, try to avoid drawing a direct line.

But when does preaching values morph into electioneering, and will the big money entwined with loopholes — the cash that already weighs so heavily in campaigns and elections — be drawn into organizations thought to be at least somewhat removed from such worldly concerns?

Politicians at the pulpit

Of course, politicians have seldom shown restraint, often using religion as both platform and shield.

Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore has fought off charges of inappropriate sexual behavior with underage and teen girls by positioning his fight as a “righteous” one. In his interpretation, he is the moral one, vowing to take to Washington “a knowledge of the Constitution and to God, upon whom it is founded.”

Faced with what promises to be a tough primary against a former pastor, North Carolina Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger has presented himself as a defender of Christmas against the forces of political correctness in a heavy-handed ad that makes one wonder both what the penalty will be for saying “Happy Holidays” and what his constituents who don’t adhere to his brand of Christianity can expect when it comes to basic services.

Some of the same politicians who condemn zealots in other nations slip  comfortably into language that excludes rather than includes. In doing so, they cheapen the pluralistic American society we hold as an example for others across the world.

Franklin Graham has disregarded the admonitions of his 99-year-old father Billy Graham to avoid becoming too involved in the political fray — a lesson dad learned when he got burnt by a too-close alliance with Richard Nixon. The younger Graham recently defended Trump and Moore, saying of Moore’s accusers, “I don’t know. I don’t know these women.” Speaking to the Charlotte Observer after an event hosted by the Samaritan’s Purse Christian charity he heads, he then pivoted to the shoe boxes of toys and necessities he had just shipped off to refugee Rohingya Muslim children. “They’re people that God created. … If we Christians don’t show love, who else is?” he said of the children.

A message that requires so many juxtapositions — between belief and doubt, charity or condemnation — and that places faith so squarely in partisan politics is jarring because it reaches outward. It endorses some, attacks others and finds fault in our neighbor’s beliefs and lifestyles, all while failing to look within for signs of imperfection and the path to a more spiritual, inclusive way.

Realistically, would tearing away another layer of the protection of state from church and church from state be a shame? Or would it be a recognition that the divide that already exists does not stop at the door of any house of worship or on any day of the week?

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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