President Trump signed an executive order May 4 intended to promote free speech and religious liberty, particularly that of our nation’s pastors.
But the executive order may not do as much to loosen a gag rule placed on pastors that restricts them in expressing their political persuasions, as some first thought. For one thing, it didn’t nix the Johnson Amendment. The tax code restricting a church from becoming involved in political campaigning still stands.
Rather, President Trump’s mandate clarifies for the Internal Revenue Service his administration’s intention to enforce vigorously the “robust protections for religious freedom” in federal law. Some say the executive order, however, did not go far enough, failing to add protections for faith-based businesses that have established employment practices based on a biblical sexual ethic.
One implication of his order, though, is that IRS shouldn’t take any adverse actions—such as removing tax exempt status—against the churches of pastors who speak out on “moral or political issues from a religious perspective” any more than it would take against a secular non-profit for expressing similar political views. Note what’s absent here: any mention of the word “candidate.”
According to Frank Sommerville, an attorney for Church Law & Tax, “Churches and ministries should have less risk than before if their pastors choose to use their pulpit to apply religious beliefs to current political and social issues.” But also note the executive order does not say pastors are free to make endorsements for a particular candidate or allow congregations to be directly involved in campaigning.
Few of us like the idea of the IRS stalking pastors, stringently scrutinizing their messages or seemingly looking over their shoulders as they go about preparing a message from God’s Word addressing the moral and social issues of the day. Yet, even if an executive order somehow did nix the Johnson Amendment and lift the IRS gag rule completely, is it always prudent for a pastor to use that newfound freedom in the pulpit in favor of or against a political candidate?
That’s an altogether different story, according to congregants. Indeed, while most church members want their pastors to speak freely about Christian values and how those values should impact everyday life, helping them in forming a biblical worldview and to understand the cultural ramifications of government decisions, some also think their endorsing a candidate is going a step to far.
A LifeWay Research survey found that nearly 8 in 10 Protestant senior pastors do not want the government regulating sermons and punishing churches for the political content in their sermons. But research also shows the vast majority of Americans do not want their pastors advising them which candidate they should vote for. Surprisingly, this is also true of evangelicals, as only 25 percent felt endorsements were appropriate.
Texas editor Marv Knox, a former editor of the Western Recorder, cautions, “Pastors who take Trump up on his invitation to politicize their pulpits will split their churches. Fortunately, most pastors love their congregations too much to do that. But those who do will wreak havoc. They will set congregant against congregant.”
Indeed, partisan politics may do enormous harm. It could cause significant damage to a pastor’s ability to compellingly communicate the gospel to some in his congregation and even hamper the church’s ability to lovingly minister to those in need who hold opposing political allegiances. Visitors may quickly decide not to come back again.
Where the course of an election and the direction of our state or nation are at stake, patience and understanding may be sorely tested and tempers can easily flare. If we aren’t careful with our words, they can be divisive, even unintentionally. Church services and business meetings may become more like town hall meetings, as members square off, defending their political views. Do we really need anything else to cause division among us and distract from the gospel of Christ?
So while we welcome the executive order as a step in the right direction in promoting religious liberty and free speech, we must exercise the freedom it brings prudently and lovingly. Yes, we may now have the right to say what we want, but should we—for the sake of the gospel?