“I take Gospel positions; not partisan positions.” That is the litany I hear over and over again from diocesan clergy who, though goaded by the angry and hostile rhetoric coming out of the White House, remain committed to their ordination vow: to employ the Gospel as the lens through which we look at the world rather than the other way around.
The rhetoric ramped up considerably on May 4 when President Trump signed an executive order repealing parts of the Johnson Amendment, which became a provision of the US tax code in 1954. Named after then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, the amendment (which was a collaboration between the Eisenhower Administration and the Senate) restricted nonprofit institutions from endorsing candidates for office or otherwise engaging in partisan politics from the pulpit, lest they lose their tax exempt status.
The Johnson Amendment was a reinforcement of the separation of church and state. I look upon it as one of the cornerstones of religious freedom. One of the abiding gifts of the Episcopal Church is its commitment to an openness of mind. Directing, or even suggesting, that its members vote for a particular candidate or party undermines our cherished and protected practice of inviting people of faith to think for themselves. Not only does the Episcopal Church treasure diversity of opinions, be they political or religious, we invite it - because our deeper commitment to the Gospel holds us together.
The President has said that his executive order "defends the freedom of religion and speech." It doesn't. Rather, as I see it, the President's intent is to align religious institutions with a partisan agenda. It's pandering to a particular religious expression. Given his verbal track record, I can't imagine that the President is encouraging anyone but those who share his political agenda to offer their partisan preferences from their pulpits. Fortunately, the Executive Order does not go as far as the President has claimed, given that it does not undo the Johnson Amendment.
Aligning the church with the state has been tried before, in other places, with catastrophic results, as religious institutions then become mouthpieces for the state. Openness of mind is truncated, true freedom gets threatened and the prophetic biblical witness is stripped of its power.
We preach the Gospel.