The Perils of Repealing the Johnson Amendment

One of Donald Trump’s promises to the Evangelical community–and one which he’s gotten much enthusiasm about in return–is his promise to repeal the so-called “Johnson Amendment,” the provision in the tax code which prohibits 503(c)3 tax-exempt organisations–and that includes churches–from explicitly endorsing candidates for public office.  I say “explicitly” because churches on both sides of the political–and racial–spectrum have been implicitly doing this for a long time.  And the polarisation of our society has only made this easier.

It’s for that reason that I think the real impact of this will not be as widespread as people think.  Whether it is beneficial is another story.  One thing that this country has been “about” is that freedom is something to be used responsibly.  If and when this restriction comes out of the tax code, our ministers will have some serious choices to make.  Based on my experience with our ministers, this may not work out as anticipated.

Most ministers of the Gospel are called, trained and set forth to lead their congregations or, to use Our Lord’s pastoral analogy, feed the sheep.  The interests of the sheep are for the most part local: raising a family, doing the work to make a living, and being a part of their community.  The gifts and skills of the ministers, which admittedly vary, are geared towards that kind of life pursuit.  That’s especially true with Evangelical churches, with their focus on the salvation experience and (hopefully) the later spiritual growth.

To properly operate politically, however, requires a broader view of life.  That’s where the problem comes in.  Most of our ministers, by training and temperament, are unprepared to properly address the broader issues facing our society, and thus are unprepared to properly inform their congregations about how best to respond to those challenges.  As a result of this there are two mistakes our ministers make in addressing political issues that can significantly impact their congregations.

On the left, we have those who basically “flip” the message of the Gospel, putting the broader social issues ahead of the personal ones.  That’s a major reason left-wing churches are in decline: they’re political all right, but they don’t address people’s life issues in a meaningful way.

On the right, we have various forms of “prosperity teaching.”  At the core of prosperity teaching are two underlying assumptions.  The first is that Christianity is the “way up” in this world, and second that moving up is the principal goal of life.  Today we principally associate prosperity teaching with the likes of Paula White, who prayed at President Trump’s inauguration.  But we’ve had this before.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s the Episcopal Church experienced tremendous growth, basically by telling people that they had the nicest religion and that people could move up by becoming a part of it.  The taste of the two results is quite divergent, but the ultimate goal is the same.

The danger of the left-wing mistake is obvious: declining churches.  The danger of the right is the same as Harry Reid’s doing away with the super-majority filibuster for nominees: if the political wind reverses, you’ve given yourself the shaft.  In both cases the reality of the Gospel is obscured by our desires of the moment.

I think that political activity needs to be the province of the laity.  And I’ve heard Christian politicians show a stronger grasp on what the Gospel is all about than ministers about political issues.  To put our ministers in the “driver’s seat” of political activity is to cede yet another function of the laity, reducing the latter to passive consumers of the church’s product.  And we have enough of that unBiblical kind of thing going on as it is.

As I said at the start, freedom is something that needs to be used wisely.  If you get it, be careful: you may end up losing it all if you blow it.

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