Lyndon B. Johnson had a problem. Powerful anti-communist organizations were threatening his Senate re-election campaign. The best way to stop them, Johnson decided, was to silence them.
So, on July 2, 1954, Johnson offered a floor amendment to ban all nonprofit 501(C)(3) groups from engaging in political activity. Without hearings or public debate, his amendment passed the Senate. Johnson’s amendment was targeted at the nonprofit groups contesting his seat, but churches were caught up in the ban. In just minutes – and without debate – churches, for reasons that had nothing to do with the separation of church and state, were stripped of their liberty to participate in America’s political life.
That will change if “The Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act,” (H.R. 2357) introduced by Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., and cosponsored by 115 other members of the House, becomes law. Jones’ bill will reverse Johnson’s ban and return First Amendment protection to America’s churches, synagogues and mosques.
It will restore to churches a freedom and role that dates to America’s infancy. Nineteenth-century historian John Wingate Thornton said that “in a very great degree, to the pulpit, the PURITAN Pulpit, we owe the moral force which won our independence.”
The British would agree. Disgusted at the black-robed clergy’s prominent role in stirring the colonies to fight, the redcoats called them the “Black Regiment.” Back then, it was graduates of Yale and Harvard, serving in churches across New England, who laid out the theology of resistance that made war with Britain inevitable. One of the most provocative and influential sermons preached during the Revolutionary era was Jonathan Mayhew’s 1750 “Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers.” His message, quickly printed and read on both sides of the Atlantic, justified political and military resistance to tyrants and has been called “The Morning Gun of the American Revolution.”
In the mid-19th century, evangelical Christians were primary agents in shaping American political culture, according to Richard Carwardine, author of “Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America.” “Political sermons, triumphalist and doom laden, redolent with biblical imagery and theological terminology, were a feature of the age,” he writes.
One minister said voters in the 1856 election had a choice between “truth and falsehood, liberty and tyranny, light and darkness, holiness and sin … the two great armies of the battlefield of the universe, each contending for victory.”
Language like that today might earn a visit from the IRS. It did in 1992 after the Church at Pierce Creek in New York, placed a newspaper ad warning Christians not to vote for Bill Clinton for president. Three years later, the IRS revoked the church’s tax exemption.
At other times, the IRS has looked the other way. In 1994, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo campaigned for re-election on a Sunday morning at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem. “Cuomo was rewarded with a long, loud round of applause and an unequivocal endorsement from the pastor,” according to a Newsday report. The American Center for Law and Justice, which represented the Church at Pierce Creek, uncovered evidence at trial that the IRS knew of more than 500 instances, like that at Bethel A.M.E., where candidates appeared before churches – but took no action to deny their tax-exempt status.
The unequal enforcement of the existing law is just one reason why scrapping the political-activity ban altogether is a good idea. The ban is also a blatant violation of the First Amendment, is vague and burdensome, and marginalizes churches at a time when America most needs a moral witness.
Not just endorsements, but voter education activities such as voter guides that compare office-seekers on issues may violate the ban if they are perceived as partisan. Even addressing moral concerns such as abortion from the pulpit during an election campaign may violate the IRS rule if abortion, for example, is under debate in the campaign.
With so much uncertainty and so much at risk, silence is, regrettably, the only option for the minister who wants to ensure that the IRS does not open a file on his church. But if we owe our liberties to the “moral force” of the pulpit, the censorship of that voice – for reasons that have everything to do with partisan politics and nothing to do with the separation of church and state – is a monumental mistake that should be quickly corrected.
In a culture like ours, which sometimes seems on moral life support, the voice of the church and her message of reconciliation, virtue and hope must be not be silenced.