Some pastors praise Trump order, while others worry over integrity
President Donald Trump’s order to ease limits on political activity by religious organizations is being met with both enthusiasm and dread from religious leaders, with some rejoicing in the freedom to preach their views and endorse candidates and others fearing the change will erode the integrity of houses of worship.
Trump signed the executive order Thursday, saying it would give churches their “voices back.” It directs the Treasury Department not to take action against religious organizations that engage in political speech.
“It’s never good for the church or the state when the two get in bed with each other,” said the Rev. Gregory Boyd, senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church, a nondenominational church in suburban St. Paul.
For pastors to use the pulpit “to get others to buy into their particular way of voting is, I think, a real abuse of authority,” he added.
The Rev. Charlie Muller, pastor of the nondenominational Victory Christian Church in Albany, N.Y., is excited. As soon as details of the order are sorted out, his church plans to endorse a candidate for mayor.
“I’m very involved politically, but we’ve been handcuffed,” Muller said. “We want to have a voice, and we haven’t had that.”
Trump had long promised conservative Christian supporters that he would block the IRS regulation, known as the Johnson Amendment, though any repeal would have to be done by Congress. The amendment, named for then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, was enacted in 1954 and allows a wide range of advocacy on political issues. But it bars electioneering and outright political endorsements from the pulpit.
Soon after the president signed the order, an atheist group known as the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed papers in federal court seeking to block the measure.
The IRS does not publicize violation investigations, but only one church is known to have lost its tax-exempt status for breaking the rule. Because the limits are rarely enforced, some say the regulation never had teeth, and Trump’s signature amounted to a photo opportunity.
The Rev. Wallace Bubar, pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in Des Moines, Iowa, described the order as “pandering to the religious right.” He does not foresee any effect on his church or any other.
“For whatever reason, the religious right evangelicals have developed a persecution complex here in the last few years, and I think this is intended to address that,” Bubar said.
Rabbi Jonah Pesner supports the Johnson Amendment, calling it “a gift to preachers.”
“It gives me the freedom, from the pulpit, to preach about values and policy, but to be protected from partisanship,” said Pesner, who runs the social and advocacy arm of Reform Judaism, the largest American Jewish movement. “Because if I were able to cross that partisan line as a preacher, I’d be under enormous pressure from stakeholders, from members, from donors. It would undermine my moral authority as a guardian of religious tradition.”
Preachers, he said, must speak truth to power “in the spirit of the prophets,” no matter which party has power.
The Rev. Don Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, said the Johnson Amendment can protect the clergy from being put in awkward spots, such as being asked to endorse a parishioner’s relative.
“History teaches us this: Whenever the church is too close to government ... the church loses its integrity,” he said.