Last Thursday was the National Day of Prayer. US Presidents have designated days of prayer, fasting and thanksgiving since the very beginning of our republic. Our earlier prayer books had liturgical forms for these occasions, which were once quite prominent and numerous. The National Day of Prayer, as an annual, recurring spring event is relatively modern, though. It was resolved by Congress in 1952, in the dark days of the Korean War, at the urgent prompting of then young and dynamic evangelist, Billy Graham.
Prayer services for our nation and its leaders are held across the country on this day, including sometimes in the White House and on Capitol Hill. I’ve participated in at least one ecumenical service for the day, and at Evening Prayer last Thursday at Saint Francis, we included a petition for the President and the Congress, nodding to the occasion. Our leaders need our prayers, especially at times of great change. It’s surely a good thing to gather people of different creeds and traditions to ask God for wisdom and courage for those who face such daunting challenges.
But this year’s National Day of Prayer will be remembered for something else as well. At the White House event marking the occasion, President Trump announced his decision to sign an executive order directing the IRS not to enforce the Johnson Amendment, part of the US Tax Code. The amendment is nearly as old as the Day of Prayer itself, having been authored by then-senator Lyndon B. Johnson in 1954. It also reflects a time when religion had a more prominent role in American public life. The amendment essentially says that churches, like other non-profit organizations, risk losing their tax-exempt status if they endorse political candidates.
By a stroke of the pen, President Trump has given a wide berth for American religious institutions to dramatically expand their involvement in the political system. To my mind, that’s a very bad thing.
There are few traditions surrounding religion and public life in Western culture that are older than church exemption from taxation. In the early fourth century, shortly after his own conversion, the Roman emperor Constantine exempted churches from state taxes on the grounds that their prayers were benefit to the nation. In most Western societies since then, the exemption has been preserved, even as the terms of the relationship between church and state have varied significantly from place to place. Tax exemption has freed up funds that have helped churches to pray for the world, as the emperor intended, but also to provide valuable social services, to serve as patrons of the arts and to promote sacred and secular learning. Churches can and do survive without it, but it is a blessing that has proved enormously helpful. The state forfeits a great deal of revenue to preserve the exemption, and it seems an appropriate exchange for the state to fix some boundaries on the activities of churches to ensure that they continue to seek the common good.
Our nation was the world’s first major non-sectarian state, framed by men who were suspicious of the coercive power that churches had often exercised over public life in Europe. As Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner points out in his important book A Brutal Unity (2012), the secular state emerged in part out of the church’s violent failure to seek unity in love. The secular state was a means of saving Christianity from its own persistent demons. Our national laws have protected religious speech and the free practice of religion from the beginning. Even after the Johnson Amendment was enacted, pastors were still free to speak the truth as they saw it about general political issues before their congregations, and churches had the right to advocate about particular laws and social issues.
But after nearly two centuries of a rough-and-tumble political system Johnson (and the rest of Congress—for there was no objection raised about the amendment) thought it would be wise for the state to draw the line at endorsing particular candidates. There was history behind the decision. Plenty of 19th century evangelicals had directly endorsed antislavery and Prohibition-seeking Republican candidates and Irish Catholic priests had a legendary ability to turn out their charges to vote the ticket as well as any Democratic precinct captain. This was the 1950’s, a time when churches were growing and beginning to flex their muscles. Johnson and his fellow leaders feared a reversion to sectarian conflict, a breaking down of the social unity created by the common effort of the Second World War. If churches stuck to religion, and left politics alone, they thought, it would be better for the whole of society.
American churches thrived in many ways under the restrictions of the Johnson Amendment. It didn’t prevent the Civil Rights Movement, which was prominently led by pastors and used religious language extensively. It didn’t prevent the rise of politically active religious conservatism in the 1980’s, which brought significant changes to laws surrounding abortion and related social issues. American religious people have found many ways to express convictions rooted in the teachings of the Bible, and politicians of both parties have pursued public service for motives arising from their deeply held faith.
A recent Lifeway poll found that 79% of American Christians oppose direct political speech from the pulpit and no American denomination has endorsed the idea of repealing the Johnson amendment. But President Trump had signaled long before that he felt the Johnson Amendment was an unnecessary restriction on free speech, and he has been egged in this belief by a small, extremist group of pastors and religious broadcasters, nearly all of them conservative evangelicals. Some had been participating for years in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” an annual joint flouting of the ban, when pastors would endorse particular candidates on a given Sunday. This group has been loyal to the president, and perhaps he feels this is an appropriate reward. But it will almost certainly harm all of us in the long run.
The last two decades have seen ever-widening social divisions in our nation. People get their news from competing outlets, they make friends only among people who already share their political convictions. As partisan bickering has escalated in Congress, so has it also in community groups and in all sorts of online forums. At their best, churches have been places that gather people of varied political convictions to talk and pray about things that are both more deeply human and more transcendent, the values and convictions that should unite us, even as we make different decisions about how to weight them in coming to a decision about which candidate to support.
This executive order makes that cross-political, transcendent work more difficult. Some religious leaders on the right and the left will feel emboldened by this decision to become more narrow and vocal about matters that often lie far away from the heart of the message they are called to teach. “Dark money” may funneled through religious charities into election campaigns, with all the opportunities for corruption that come with such exchanges. Those who are already disposed to resent the church’s privileges will have more reasons to despise us, especially if we become even more visibly identified with one small portion of the political spectrum.
Direct political action is not the church’s role in modern America. The further we stay away from it, the easier it will be for us to retain the integrity and social respect we rely upon in doing the work God has called us to do. Like all the other religious leaders respect, I will not be endorsing political candidates. Under my leadership, Saint Francis will not be participating in direct political activity. Please join me in work that truly serves the common good, praying for our leaders and our fragile nation in this challenging time.