Posted by: Titus Presler | February 17, 2017

Principles, not Parties or Persons: Repealing the ‘Johnson Amendment’ would distort the mission of churches

Lost in the din emanating from the daily absurdities and outrages of Donald Trump’s presidential administration is his Feb. 2 proposal at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington to ‘destroy’ the so-called Johnson Amendment that prohibits USAmerican non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates or making financial contributions to political campaigns.

The Johnson Amendment is named after then Texas senator Lyndon Johnson, who later became vice president and president, and it was inserted into the Internal Revenue Code in 1954.  It applies to all organizations registered under the non-profit 501(c)(3) section of the code, so it includes not only churches but thousands of foundations, educational institutions, and charities.

Repeal of the amendment should be vigorously opposed, for it could result in a radical distortion of the mission of Christian churches in the USA.

Churches with a partisan itch would doubtless jump into the political fray, opening a floodgate to partisan political activity.  Most of that would probably be right-wing, the sector that Trump was recklessly pandering to at the prayer breakfast.  Churches that would wisely hang back in ordinary times might be tempted to join the fray lest ‘Christian political positions’ be stereotyped as right-wing.

The Christian gospel does have political implications – indeed, strong ones – for God’s revelation in the Jewish and Christian scriptures sets forth clearly lots of principles of personal morality that should be lived out in public as well as in private life, and lots of principles of social ethics that guide how we should live as communities.  Both the personal and the social dimensions should guide us in our political life.

Instances are too numerous to catalogue, but a few should suffice.  Topics of some of the Ten Commandments – for instance, the Sabbath, murder, theft, adultery – have affected civil and criminal codes – yes, with many details debated, but the effects are plain to see.  Jesus’ Beatitudes highlight personal qualities, yes, but peace-making, for example, has political valence.  Jesus’ central preaching of the Kingdom of God had political implications, as we see in his many condemnations of callous wealth and neglect of the poor.

The overwhelming biblical witness, in both the Old and New Testaments, in favor of justice for the poor, mercy for the condemned, hospitality for refugees, care of the sick, and compassion for the debt-ridden have clear implications for the body politic.  Underlying this witness is the generosity of God showered equally on all of us, a generosity that we are to reflect in our stance toward our fellow human beings, all of us equally created in God’s very image.

Christians have not always lived out the political implications of their faith, but at many times they have.  The anti-slavery campaign in the British Empire and the abolitionist movement in the USA in the 19th century had strong Christian and church involvement, as did the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  Most churches were latecomers to the feminist movement as we know it today, but the modern missionary movement around the world was pretty consistently counter-cultural in pressing for girls’ education and the liberation of women from oppressive structures like foot-binding and the burning of widows – and women’s empowerment is a major feature of mission today.

‘Principles, not Parties or Persons’ – this should be our guideline for the church’s role in politics.  Christian discipleship, Christian mission, and our lives in churches must be engaged with the world.  That means offering a vision for the life of the world and articulating principles that should guide society.  It also means working to combat such scourges as racism, sexism, human trafficking and ecological degradation.  That is our socio-political mission.

Yet the Reign of God cannot be identified with any particular party, or equated with any particular program, whether on the left or the right or the middle, and it certainly cannot be limited to any particular political figure. Churches and their leaders must resist the temptation to associate God’s Reign exclusively with any particular party, program or person.  Faithful Christian political witness will often find authentic gospel elements in unexpected places – sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right, sometimes in the middle.  If churches were permitted to endorse candidates and affiliate with political parties they would lose their visionary and instructional role in society – and fundamentally distort their mission.

Personally, I have never had difficulty keeping the two threads separate.  While I am politically active, and while my general political drift is clear from time to time in this blog and elsewhere, I have an allergy to praising or disparaging any political figure or party in my preaching, teaching or congregational leadership.  In private conversation during coffee hour I might venture a political observation or two, but even there I am cautious.  At St. Peter’s in Cambridge, we often offered a Sunday forum entitled something like ‘The Gospel and the Globe’, meaning The Boston Globe, in which we would discuss the relation of the week’s news stories to the Christian gospel.  It was a good exercise to run that in a thoroughly non-partisan way.

It’s equally important pastorally to keep not politics but partisan politics out of church.  One of the marvels of any ordinary congregation is its diversity – diversity in age, diversity in race and ethnicity, diversity in gender and sexual orientation, diversity in educational levels, diversity in occupations.  A typical congregation also has political diversity, and that is equally important.  We must keep in mind that the fundamental reason for people gathering on Sunday is to experience God, and everything else is subsidiary to that intrinsically spiritual and religious vocation.  Just as one would not want to alienate grade-school graduates by implying that only a college education is respectable, or vice versa, and just as one would not want to alienate professionals by implying that only hands-on trades are respectable, or vice versa, we should similarly avoid alienation by implying that only a Democratic or only a Republican approach is respectable.

In the Trump era, congregations are already experiencing stress around this tension as pro-Trump and anti-Trump folks square off against one another in response to sermons perceived as anti or pro, or church-sponsored events perceived as anti or pro.  Often the provocations are statements that carelessly assume one correct political view or programs that are ill-conceived in assuming that parishioners will want to align with one ‘correct’ stance.  We all have our political points of view, but all of us, whether leaders or parishioners, must be humble enough to acknowledge that our insights are fallible, however passionately held.

Some religious people are already pressing the envelope of religion’s involvement in partisan politics quite far enough.  The ‘Christian Right’ has long been an identifiable segment of the USAmerican population.  Some Christians on both the left and the right have expressed intolerance for differing points of view.  Let’s not intensify the partisan politicization of USAmerican Christianity by allowing religious institutions to endorse candidates and identify with political parties.

Finally, there’s a justice concern: Non-profit organizations registered under Section 501(c)(3) are established for the public good, broadly conceived, so that applies to churches and other religious institutions; schools, colleges and universities; foundations and other charities.  The government supports their public service by exempting them from taxes.  For them – us – to turn around and endorse candidates and affiliate with parties would be to abuse the benefit we have received.  When citizens contribute financially to political parties and campaign committees those contributions are not tax-exempt, precisely because taxpayers must not be asked to subsidize miscellaneous political parties and candidates (as distinguished from the public funding of campaigns that occurs through elective contributions on our tax returns administered by election commissions).  If non-profits were to succeed in being permitted to endorse candidates and affiliate with parties, they should not be surprised if many begin to press to abolish their tax-exempt status.

Let’s keep our socio-political mission clear: Principles.  Not Parties or Persons.   


  1. Thanks, Mark. As I’ve often noted, human social existence is inherently political, so politics is inescapable whether in workplaces, community organizations, churches, civic government at every level, and even the family. Politics in itself is simply the use of social power to accomplish objectives and get work done. Every human experience that involves more than one person has a political dimension, for it involves the perception, allocation, negotiation, distribution and mobilization of social power. Even the most passive social setting, like sitting on a bus or a train or sitting in a medical office waiting room, has political dimensions – tacitly perceived political relationships that we don’t think about or articulate until some kind of disruption arises, such as an unruly passenger, a bullying conductor, a medical emergency, a perceived injustice about who has to wait longer for an appointment. Then the issues of who intervenes, who gets listened to, whose opinion prevails and so on instantly activate relationships in which the powers of personality, age, language, ethnicity, education, professional competence and so on come into play. So, yes, any group like a parish vestry which is specifically set up to be a locus where power is allocated, distributed and mobilized to get specific kinds of work done is inherently political.

    I stress this in order to destigmatize the category of politics. On the analysis above, it becomes obvious that politics in itself is not at all bad but is, by contrast, a very important aspect of human social existence. That helps us to see that there is good politics and bad politics, useful politics and damaging politics. Clearly the polarization so evident in USAmerican national politics has brought us to a place where we have lots of extremist, selfish, spiteful, marginalizing and cruel political action, and our national life is suffering as a result.

    Back to the topic of this blogpost, it is important for churches to mobilize the biblical and theological resources of Christianity to highlight principles that will help community life flourish, whether in the neighborhood, the town, the city, the state or the nation. This is, or should be, a major political contribution. As churches we retain our ability to make that contribution credibly only if we as churches refrain from the partisan level of such political action. As soon as we get partisan, those on ‘the other side’ stop listening and those on ‘our side’ begin to make the mistake of identifying ‘our side’ with God’s side.

    A final comment: Many observers are uncomfortable with ‘political Islam’ as found in various jihadist movements and with ‘political Hinduism’ as found in the Hindutva movement and the BJP in India. We should be similarly uncomfortable with ‘political Christianity,’ whether of the right-wing or left-wing varieties. Christianity has political implications of great consequence. It is not in itself a political program. That distinction is important.

  2. After I got involved in Vestry at Christ Church Plymouth, I once complained to Peter Gomes about the politics involved. He responded, “My dear boy, the church invented politics.” Thank you for this commentary, Titus.

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