I want to apologise in advance if you don’t agree with the views outlined below. Church for Misfits remains a place for people of all views and backgrounds, and that will never change. I see the church as a whole in the U.S. acting in ways that hurt a lot of people. No one within it seems to be speaking out. In short, I feel that someone has to. Again, my apologies if this offends unnecessarily.
National Day of Prayer was last week and you had to be living under a rock not to have heard something about the religious freedom Executive Order that President Trump took the opportunity to sign. For many it’s probably old news, but I wanted to wait to voice my thoughts on the matter because it’s an issue that has raised strong emotions in a lot of people, including me, and a little perspective is never a bad thing.
What I want to know is why as Christians we think we need something like this. The main focus of the order, as I understand it, has to do with the Johnson Amendment. Basically, it prohibits churches and other non-profit entities from speaking out on political issues. They can’t endorse candidates, for example, without risking their tax-exempt status. While the President can’t eliminate or modify the Amendment without having Congress pass legislation to do so, what he can do is instruct the appropriate government agencies to not enforce the Johnson Amendment when it comes to churches. This is exactly what the President has done, and in his own words he touts it as “giving our churches their voices back.”
Again, I wonder why we need something like this. I’ve lived in the U.S. off and on for 7 years now, meaning I’ve been here through a number of elections at all levels of government. As far as I can remember, I have never heard a pastor say, “I’d really like to tell you who to vote for but I can’t because I’m not allowed to,” or something to that effect. Without fail what I’ve heard from the pulpit has always been something along the lines of, “I’m not going to tell you who to vote for because that’s not my job. God gave you free will and a conscience. Vote as you feel led to.” The pastors may have voiced their personal opinions in private conversations but they never came up in the pulpit. Granted there are tens of thousands of churches in this country, so my experience shouldn’t necessarily be taken as the norm, but that being said as a pastor myself I agree with those sentiments. As ministers that simply isn’t our job. Furthermore, churches have spoken out on issues of public importance in this country for decades. Sometimes it seems like that’s all we do, whether we’re right to do so or not. I can’t recall churches being told they’ll lose their tax-exempt status for doing so.
In addition to wondering why this is even a good idea, I also see several dangers inherent in an Executive Order such as this. First of all, the Johnson Amendment still exists and will continue to do so until such time as Congress passes legislation either modifying it or eliminating it entirely. What that means, especially if Congress cannot do so, is that a future administration can simply opt to enforce the full weight of the Amendment against those pastors who have used the opportunity created by this Order. In short, Christians in this country are once again quite possibly shooting ourselves in the collective foot.
The greater danger, however, is to those we continue to marginalise. We are not so slowly turning our churches into little more than the religious wing of the Republican party. What will we do when, for example, our churches support Republican candidates but the people we are supposed to be loving and serving don’t? As I’ve written before, our credibility as Christians in this country is pretty well gone. Supporting an Executive Order such as this one simply removes all doubt as to where our priorities truly lie.
Separation of church and state exists in this country and even as a pastor I’ll be the first to say that it does so for a reason. Our job as Christians is to engage with those around us, to love them and to serve them, not to use the government to our advantage at their expense. This Order does not, as many feared it might, give Christians a license to discriminate. That being said, when discrimination does occur, given the strong language supporting religious beliefs found in the Executive Order, who do you really think the government is going to support?
We are, once again, fighting the wrong damn battle in this country.