Free to Differ

Screenshot 2017-05-09 08.55.41President Trump has promised to “destroy” the so-called Johnson Amendment, which has become shorthand for a provision in the tax code that applies to all 501(c)(3) organizations. Groups that enjoy that most-favored tax status must refrain from endorsing, opposing or financially supporting political candidates.

The law makes perfect sense to me.  Organizations that benefit from what is in effect a public subsidy should not be allowed to function as partisan organizations.

Proponents of repeal of the Johnson Amendment see it as suppressing “religious liberty.”  I don’t see it that way at all.  The law simply limits groups, including churches, from being both a tax-exempt ministry and a partisan political entity.  Nothing in the law bars me, as a Christian pastor, from speaking freely about matters of faith and public policy.  I can certainly praise or criticize those who hold public office.  What I can’t do under the law is endorse candidates for office – at least not in my capacity as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church.

In many ways, this fracas is much ado about nothing.  Only rarely has the IRS gone after churches for overt partisan political activity.  Despite what fear mongers say, the IRS is not poised to pounce on preachers.

Although I have occasionally been asked to endorse candidates for office, it has always been my policy not to do so.  I suppose that, as a private citizen, I could endorse someone, but, as any pastor will tell you, a pastor is never really “off duty.”  I have never endorsed –nor will I ever endorse – anyone from the pulpit.  On the other hand, my calling to preach the Word sometimes leads me to question or praise office holders and their policies.

My Dad, who was a pastor, declined to put a political sign in the yard of the manse.  When he lived in a home not owned by the church, however, he changed his mind.  I don’t put partisan bumper stickers on my car because I use it for official functions.  I don’t want a grieving family of a differing political persuasion to follow my car in a funeral procession, resentful of my politics.  On the other hand, because I own my own home, you might see the odd political sign in the front yard (or several of them.)

This week’s edition of Time magazine recalls the almost-forgotten role that some clergy played in the abortion debate before the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe versus Wade.  Writer Gillian Frank singles out the courageous acts taken by Charles Landreth, Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee, and Florida State University Professor Leo Sandon.  The first paragraph of her article reads:

“Today I want to speak to The Challenge of the Sexual Revolution, or to The Use of the Body in Regard to Abortion,” declared the Reverend Charles Landreth on, June 6, 1971. From the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, Fla., Landreth invited those present to imagine different situations that led to a “problem pregnancy.” Landreth prodded his congregants, asking them to consider what an unwanted pregnancy and lack of access to abortion could mean to an older married woman, a young woman who had been raped or a high-school girl “scared literally to death to tell her staunch Catholic parents and therefore very tempted to run to a quack . . . ”

I recommend the article.  I also give thanks to God for servants like Charlie Landreth and Leo Sandon, who truly understand what “religious liberty” means.

About Brant Copeland

I was born in Brownsville, Texas, grew up in San Antonio and in Lake Charles, Louisiana. I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Tallahassee, Florida.
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