Why Church-State Separation is Still a Good Thing

By Bill Mefford

I did something the other day I promised myself I would never do: I watched an entire speech by donald trump. It was his speech to a group of evangelical pastors in Orlando, Florida. It was truly difficult to watch, not just because I don’t care much for trump, but because he has a very difficult time making sense. He talks a lot about how his statements get taken out of context. Well, they are even worse in context, at least from what I heard.

Here are a few of my favorite odd statements he made that I wrote down:

  • (In talking about pastors not being able to endorse candidates from the pulpit) “They got so used to something that is wrong, they didn’t know it was wrong, but they knew it was wrong.”
  • “Christianity is having a very, very tough time.” 
  • “Christians from Syria, it is impossible for them to come into the United States. Muslims from Syria can get into the US easy. But not Christians.”
  • “There’s one other person in the room who is a better person than me.” 
  • He talked about LBJ a lot and twice he talked about how LBJ ran the Senate in the 1970s. (For the record, LBJ was the Majority Leader in the Senate in the 1950s, became Vice-President in 1960, President from 1963-1968, and then died in 1972.)

OK, those are just a few. There were more. I don’t think I can allow myself to watch another entire trump speech just simply because I cannot stand to watch or listen to people who have no idea how to speak. Brutal.

One thing I found particularly troublesome (and trust me, there were SOOOO many), was that he had a roomful of pastors, he could talk to about anything he wanted and the one thing he spent the most time on was the Johnson Amendment (the rest of the time he talked about polls). Now, he never explained the Johnson Amendment even though he said at one time he had never talked about it in such detail (he actually gave no details), but he talked around the Johnson Amendment for the overwhelming majority of the speech. It was such a waste of an opportunity.

I could not stop myself from asking, what would I talk about if I had a roomful of pastors and I was running for office? I imagine I would want them to know my faith journey for starters. I would assume that as pastors they have hopes for the people in their churches and communities that I would want to acknowledge and show that I share in those hopes. I imagine some of those hope might be that the sick are being appropriately cared for and are receiving the best medical care regardless of their socio-economic status, that children are safe and not needlessly exposed to violence in their schools or homes, that low-income people or folks who work as unskilled laborers have as much opportunity to find adequate and meaningful employment as anyone else, etc. There is so much to talk about with religious leaders and what they care about.

But trump talked about none of this.

Instead he talked about repealing the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment was a change in the tax code in 1954 which prohibits all tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Tax-exempt organizations are free to endorse candidates or give money to their elections but they must cease being tax-exempt first.

Now, as usual, trump has a very difficult time with the truth so let’s establish what tax-exempt organizations such as houses of worship can and cannot do. Houses of worship are not allowed to do several things under the Johnson Amendment and they include:

  • Endorse or oppose candidates,
  • Donate money to a candidate, 
  • Hand out “voter guides” that are skewed with the intention of endorsing one candidate, 
  • Offer use of the facility where the congregation meets to one candidate and refuse another, and
  • Sponsor campaign rallies for candidates in a house of worship.

On the other hand, the Johnson Amendment does not limit houses of worship from the following:

  • Congregations can openly discuss and advocate for public policy issues, 
  • Congregations can sponsor non-partisan voter registration and encourage voting as good civic behavior, 
  • Congregations can sponsor candidate forums as long as all candidates are invited and a broad range of issues are discussed, and 
  • Congregations can urge congregants to communicate with candidates and make their concerns known to them.

As a faith organizer, I have seen the power of faith communities in helping to move legislation forward on such things as reducing mass incarceration, reducing gun violence, and advancing the rights of immigrants. The power of the faith community is real and has been and will continue to be transformative in policy debates. We just can’t – for good reason – endorse candidates.

But trump repeatedly (and I counted close to 15 times) told the pastors that they had “totally been silenced.” At the same time, he also named at least two prominent religious leaders who had endorsed him (Robert Jeffress and Jerry Falwell Jr.). Like I said, he struggles with things like facts.

What was especially troubling for me and I can’t imagine how it couldn’t have been for the people in the room, is that trump said that once he repealed the Johnson Amendment people in the United States would start going back to church again. Apparently, according to trump, people will somehow magically know what Sunday school is once that amendment is no longer in place. I can see you shaking your head, but he seriously said that! Now, this is beyond stupid – people go to church because of the choir, or the youth program, or the color of the carpet, but in my life spent serving and attending churches I have NEVER heard of anyone going (or staying away) because of the Johnson Amendment. Dumb.

But this is also dangerous. Do we really want churches (or any faith community) endorsing candidates and taking the money we tithe to do the work of the Kingdom of God in our communities and around the world going to ensure that a candidate for office can buy more commercials on TV? Do we really want to go back to the time in Christian history, first started under Constantine and expanded under Theodosius, when the church and the state were fused together? Nothing will weaken the message and transformative power of the gospel like making the church and the government so dependent on one another that we cannot tell the difference between them. Isn’t this why the United States was founded?

Remaining neutral in elections gives people of faith the freedom to be able to speak prophetically to all elected officials on both sides of the aisle. This is not something we should be tempted in any way to sell out. This is what gives us freedom. There have been a lot of troubling things said by trump during this election cycle, but perhaps nothing should be as troubling to people of faith who care about the uniqueness of our message and the freedom to practice what we preach in any way we want if we sell out our neutrality. That would be like selling our birthright for a mess of pottage and I hope we have the strength to resist such a deal.