HOW 90 SECONDS ON SUNDAY TOOK ME TO 1954 AND BACK
I had been thinking about it for awhile, but after “Susie” (not her real name) mentioned it to me before worship this past Sunday (May 7, 2017) I knew more than ever that I needed to write this message. (More on “Susie” later.) Other than the email I wrote to the good people of Pharr Chapel UMC in Morgan City after Erin and I lost Samantha, this message has been the most challenging I have ever written from a pastoral perspective, for I know that this subject is highly combustible. Especially in times like these where our country’s partisan divide is sharp, corrosive, vindictive, and angry, any time one chooses to engage in commentary about things in the political realm there are consequences. However, now (over 48 hours later) I know it is time to address the matter.
In the news last week was the word that President Trump was signing executive orders to reduce the impact of what is known as the “Johnson Amendment” with respect to the requirements for 501(c)3 charitable organizations to keep their tax-exempt status.
First, a little background:
As part of the business of the 83rd Congress, on July 2, 1954, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (TX), offered an amendment to the Internal Revenue Code of 1954. The relevant portion, with the Johnson Amendment bolded, reads as follows: “Corporations, and any community chest, fund, or foundation, organized and operated exclusively for religious [ . . . ] purposes [ . . . ] no part of the net earnings of which inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual, no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation (except as otherwise provided in subsection (h) [relating to certain expenditures by charities to influence legislation]), and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” The rationale for this amendment (which was also included in the IRC of 1986, which as amended is the law of the land today) is that no political contributions are exempt from taxation, and allowing people to funnel contributions through 501(c)3 is in direct conflict with this ban.
President Trump’s Executive Order of May 4, 2017 directs the Treasury Department to enforce the law in such a way that “churches should not be found guilty of implied endorsements where secular organizations would not be.”
“Susie” asked me what I thought of President Trump’s Executive Order. My reply was along the lines of I really did not care what the President said or didn’t say with respect to this issue – it would not change my approach one bit. At no time have I ever intentionally or proactively offered opposition towards or an endorsement of a particular candidate or political party in worship, from the pulpit, or as part of my pastoral work. “Susie’s” response: “Good. I would hate to have to get up and walk out of a sermon.” We then shared a brief laugh.
Now, I know that many (including me) have strong political and ideological opinions regarding our roles as citizens of the United States and the world. It is my firm belief that everyone has not only the right but the obligation to be a knowledgeable participant in society to whatever level with which one may be comfortable. I also believe that faithful Christian men and women can have what seem to be diametrically opposed political beliefs founded on their interpretation of God’s will through their faith experiences. Many politicians and political groups from all perspectives raise millions and motivate through emotional appeals by taking advantage of the faith beliefs (or lack thereof) of their audience. I do not subscribe to the notion that in most (make that the vast majority of) cases when it comes to the two major parties in America today (along with politicians from all parties) it is intuitively obvious that God prefers one candidate over another. Further, I find it hard to believe that any faithful Christian would obviously have a certain political party registration.
Throughout my years in full-time ministry, I have had politicians of both major political parties and many political philosophies in the faith community, and no matter their political persuasion, there is not a one of them that I don’t love dearly and for whom I have a great deal of personal and professional respect. One in particular (who shall remain nameless) gave me the most theologically and biblically accurate summation of the need for Christ’s help in life I’ve ever heard when they said to me, “Lamar, I know I’m not the most religiously faithful person in the world. However, when I wake up in the morning, I ask God to help me have the faith I know I don’t have myself.” Due in no small part to that encounter, along with similar encounters with public officials with whom I’ve shared pastoral moments, I look at all personal (not issue-oriented) attack ads with a healthy bit of skepticism.
In addition to the personal pastoral relationships I’ve had with elected officials at the local, parish, state, and federal levels, the other major reason I will not engage in political advocacy for or against any candidate from the pulpit is that I do not ever want someone to have in their mind on a Sunday morning as they get ready for church, “I wonder what he’s going to say today about _________, when all I want when I go to worship is to escape this stuff.” Now, there are clergy who disagree with me on this, and if that’s how they feel called to engage in pastoral ministry, that’s their business, not mine. I also understand there are people within the Christian tradition who want their pastor to be very political and very partisan, and have no problem with a pastor going in that direction from the pulpit and in other facets of pastoral ministry. Again, that’s not my business.
However, I have also had friends and family from each of the major political parties express with extreme emotion the pain and alienation they felt from their pastor (and, by extension, their church) when said pastor engaged in strong political advocacy to the point of mocking and ridiculing a party, politician, or ideology that is opposite theirs.
No matter how strongly I may feel about a particular politician or political party, it is my deeply-held conviction that I should not exercise my right to express my personal political opinions to such an extent that it would alienate someone from a congregation I serve or give them pause to reach out in time of deep pastoral need. I do my best to extend this to my social media activity (which is primarily Facebook), for there’s enough to fairly critique from a Christian perspective about any person (including you and me) and politician (not to mention political party or philosophy), and I would hate for those for whom I have pastoral care responsibilities to feel awkward because I spent some time blasting away at and/or belittling someone or something they strongly support.
Our country, our world, and many Christian traditions are in a time of deep division. The rhetoric and emotions are strong. The right and the responsibility of the Christian to engage is also strong. We are called to be in the world but not of the world. We can and should engage in discussion concerning the issues that face our society. However, we should not do so to the point of attempting to mock, ridicule, or engage in the politics of personal destruction because, like it or not, ALL are loved by God. As a Christian of the Wesleyan tradition, I firmly believe in the doctrine of prevenient grace, which states there is not a person alive who has not been touched by the grace of God, for their very existence is testimony to God’s grace, and there is a measure of God’s presence within them whether they know it or acknowledge this truth. That includes those we may despise for political reasons.
One final thought – in every pastoral appointment I’ve ever had, I have had the privilege of serving with politicians of all stripes to help strengthen our communities. I firmly believe the community is strongest when the local clergy work with the civic leaders of all levels. No matter who is elected to whatever office, I embrace the opportunity to work together whenever possible. For me, to dive into taking sides publicly, whether from the pulpit, in church publications, or online, with respect to endorsing candidates or parties puts me in the awkward position of having that cloud hanging over these interactions, and I pray that no matter who is in what office, they will always feel welcome to be in worship with us or to partner with us wherever and whenever possible to strengthen and improve the world which God has entrusted to our stewardship.
Thank you, “Susie,” for the impetus to write this note.
And thank you, men and women of all political and ideological stripes, who put yourselves out there to serve in elected offices. Whether or not I agree with what all you say and do, our country and our world is better because people like you enter the fray. May God bless you all.
Grace and Peace,