A couple local public school ballot initiatives recently inspired me to go door-to-door with my wife and five-year-old son. I told my son to say “vote for J & C” to indicate the two ballot initiatives we supported. Instead, whenever someone opened the door, he jumped up and exclaimed, “Vote for me!” Since he’ll start kindergarten this fall in that school system, his remark was kind of accurate. His comment usually sparked a chuckle and prompted a couple of people to ask, “What are you running for?” Thankfully, voters approved the tax increase to improve our schools — probably because of the politicking of that cute kid!
Unlike my son’s comical and accurate misunderstanding, a national debate about politicking in churches includes some dangerous misunderstandings. If political activists in Washington, D.C., get their way, your pastor will soon step to the pulpit and endorse candidates for political offices. Sadly, some Southern Baptist leaders are even applauding this effort.
As Baptists, our heritage of urging separation of church and state should make us particularly leery of such politicking in the pulpits. Roger Williams, the founder of the first Baptist church in the Americas and the founder of Rhode Island, argued we need a “hedge” or “wall of separation” to protect the “garden” (the church) from the “wilderness” (the state). Other Baptist prophets have similarly spoken out, including Thomas Helwys, Isaac Backus, John Leland and George W. Truett.
Offering an alternative approach to Williams, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on May 4 encouraging churches to endorse candidates. In the midst of what was billed as a “National Day of Prayer” event in the White House’s Rose Garden, Trump moved the event from prayer to politicking as he signed the order. Former Southern Baptist Convention President Jack Graham stood approvingly behind Trump while other Southern Baptists sat nearby, including former SBC President Ronnie Floyd, former Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land and First Baptist Church of Dallas Senior Pastor Robert Jeffress.
Trump and the preachers gathered in his court want to repeal the so-called “Johnson Amendment,” a 1954 IRS regulation that prevents any 501(c)(3) nonprofit from engaging in partisan politics. Trump’s order did not actually repeal the regulation since that would require Congressional action, which is under consideration. Trump inaccurately claimed the rule punishes a church whose leader “speaks about issues of public or political importance.” Actually, that is allowed — and speaking out on such issues is part of our prophetic responsibility. We just cannot use tax-exempt resources to endorse candidates.
Houses of worship are not singled out, nor are they treated unfairly. Churches can even endorse candidates if they want — but like other groups they cannot keep their tax-exempt status and do so. Although not a church, Word&Way as a 501(c)(3) entity cannot endorse candidates. If we could, then I could run for office, put my handsome mug on the cover and declare, “Vote for me!” This would put me at a competitive advantage over my opponents since my donors could receive tax deductions for their contributions. Repealing the “Johnson Amendment” would quickly bring politicians trying to turn churches into political Super PACS where they could secretively funnel money from donors.
During his remarks on May 4, Trump claimed he would give “our churches their voices back” and make us “free.” But our voices do not come from the President, Caesar or Pharaoh. Our voices come from — and belong to — God. And the Rose Garden is not the Promised Land! Since the hissing of the snake in the Garden, those in power have been whispering to us that they can make us free if we will just take a bite. We must not eat what they offer. As Baptist prophet Tony Campolo put it, “Mixing the church and state is like mixing ice cream with cow manure. It may not do much to the manure, but it sure messes up the ice cream.” So, if a politician shows up in your church saying, “Vote for me,” it’s time to find a new church.