Yesterday President Donald Trump signed an executive order that would restrict the Johnson Amendment, which restricts churches and other non-profit groups from engaging in direct electioneering at the risk of losing their tax exemptions. Some Christian leaders have claimed — falsely — that the amendment restricts churches from speaking out on political and social issues.
That part is completely bogus on its face, as most churches I’m aware of have that right under the First Amendment and no one is trying to take it away. But most pastors are too busy doing the work of ministry, including visiting the sick, counseling, preparing next week’s sermon or interviewing potential new staff, among other things.
An op-ed in today’s New York Times, “Clerical Speech Isn’t Persecuted,” by Amy Sullivan, described in the tagline as author of “The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap,” gave a hint as the true intent of such leaders; two she named were Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University and namesake son of its late founder, and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. Note that these organizations are not churches; indeed, they operate independently of any ecclesiastical body. (Falwell’s father of course founded the late but hardly lamented Moral Majority, arguably the most prominent group involved with 1980s “religious right” activism.)
How such groups operated back then was to identify a target that they needed to defeat and watch the money roll in — whether the Democratic candidates in particular or the Party in general, LGBTQ activists and supporters or abortion-rights groups. There’s a reason for that; as Cal Thomas, vice-president of communications for Moral Majority who had since sworn off such activism was once told, “You can’t raise money on a positive.” Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition was strong and powerful only when Bill Clinton was president, petering out when George W. Bush got to the White House.
And while they made a lot of noise, they got little, if anything, done that’s lasted, and part of that was due to the oppositional nature of their advocacy, which in fact sought to divide between “us” and some “them.” It seems to me that had people put money into church ministry and worked at the grass-roots level much more could have been accomplished. (When the civil-rights movement, which I did agree with, got away from its overtly Christian roots and became somewhat partisan it too began to lose its punch.)
Let’s admit that this campaign for “religious freedom” was, and is, about nothing more than recapturing an era that never really existed — it’s always been about worldly power. The problem with that is obvious: When you have cultural, political, social or economic power, you often don’t want, or feel that you need, the power of the Holy Spirit.
Sullivan mentioned that most churches and many Christians oppose partisan entanglements, ostensibly because they get in the way of the spiritual goals, and I believe they’re correct. Changing “Washington” won’t happen, so people ought to concentrate on changing themselves and their communities. Which will last.