Be Wary of Mixing Politics and Church
President Donald Trump recently made headlines when he announced his intentions to repeal the so-called Johnson Amendment.
The rule got its name from former President Lyndon B. Johnson. In the mid-1950s, then-Sen. Johnson successfully proposed a rule prohibiting churches and non-profits from endorsing political candidates if they wanted to retain tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service.
Many conservatives have long opposed the rule and advocated its repeal, a move that Trump indicated he supported during last year’s campaign.
Resisting the Lure
While Trump may have Congressional support to push through a repeal, this could be a case of being careful what one wishes for; should it happen, pastors must be wise enough to resist the temptation to embrace political positions.
I say that for three reasons:
- I have seen the bitter divisions that arise over political opinions.
Though it’s been a number of years, I still remember the politically-tinged discussion that arose during a Bible study at our church in inner-city Louisville.
When the conversation unexpectedly turned in a political direction, the look at one woman’s face would best be described as a snarl. For me, that look still symbolizes the hazards of linking a church’s identity too closely to any political party or cause.
- The church has a better message than politics.
I saw an opinion piece soon after the National Prayer Breakfast where Trump declared his intentions.
In it, conservative columnist Cal Thomas noted that while he supports repeal of the law, the larger question is whether preachers should address politics—and to what end.
“Many political views are represented in my church,” Thomas wrote. “If the pastor began preaching on politics he would find many people, including me, headed for the exits…Whether the Johnson Amendment is repealed, or not, evangelicals have a more powerful message than partisan politics.”
Put another way, pastors should be proclaiming an eternal message, which can easily get lost amid partisan policies.
A church tied too closely to its political views can wind up contributing to the bitter divisions that exist elsewhere in society.
- A politically-charged climate in churches can result in members allowing political opinions to (pardon the pun) trump biblically-based concerns.
I saw evidence of that in a Los Angeles Times story that appeared two weeks after the prayer breakfast.
It concerned an evangelical pastor who sponsored a Muslim family from Syria and helped them settle in Fort Worth, Texas two years ago.
Citing the example of the Old Testament’s Daniel, who stood up against the political powers of his day, the pastor recently challenged his congregation not to follow the president’s anti-immigration stance. Instead, he advocated embracing refugees.
Since then, 300 members have departed. While 1,300 remain, the exodus illustrates how easily people in the church can blur the lines between Scripture and political views.
Following Biblical Guidelines
I remember the departure of some members of our church in 2012 when our pastor refused to join the anti-Obama chorus in that fall’s election. He said if Obama were re-elected we would pray for him as the Bible directs.
Our pastor repeated that statement recently after Trump’s election.
That is as it should be. Following Scriptural advice to pray for our leaders doesn’t come with the addendum, “If we agree with that leader’s policies.”
So, regardless of the future fate of the Johnson Amendment, I hope pastors will exercise enough wisdom to avoid jumping into political frays. The outcome will be like opening a Pandora’s box.