President Donald Trump’s order to ease limits on political activity by religious organizations is being met with both enthusiasm and dread from religious leaders, with some rejoicing in the freedom to preach their views and endorse candidates and others fearing the change will erode the integrity of houses of worship.
Trump signed the executive order on May 4, saying it would give churches their “voices back.” It directs the Treasury Department not to take action against religious organizations that engage in political speech.
“It’s never good for the church or the state when the two get in bed with each other,” said the Rev. Gregory Boyd, senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church, a nondenominational church in suburban St. Paul.
For pastors to use the pulpit “to get others to buy into their particular way of voting is, I think, a real abuse of authority,” he added.
The Rev. Charlie Muller, pastor of the nondenominational Victory Christian Church in Albany, New York, is excited. As soon as details of the order are sorted out, his church plans to endorse a candidate for mayor.
“I’m very involved politically, but we’ve been handcuffed,” Muller said. “We want to have a voice, and we haven’t had that.”
Trump had long promised conservative Christian supporters that he would block the IRS regulation, known as the Johnson Amendment, though any repeal would have to be done by Congress. The amendment, named for then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, was enacted in 1954 and allows a wide range of advocacy on political issues. But it bars electioneering and outright political endorsements from the pulpit.
Soon after the president signed the order, an atheist group known as the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed papers in federal court seeking to block the measure.
The IRS does not publicize violation investigations, but only one church is known to have lost its tax-exempt status for breaking the rule. Because the limits are rarely enforced, some say the regulation never had teeth, and Trump’s signature amounted to a photo opportunity.
The Rev. Wallace Bubar, pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in Des Moines, Iowa, described the order as “pandering to the religious right.” He does not foresee any effect on his church or any other.
“For whatever reason, the religious right evangelicals have developed a persecution complex here in the last few years, and I think this is intended to address that,” Bubar said.
Rabbi Jonah Pesner supports the Johnson Amendment, calling it “a gift to preachers.”
“It gives me the freedom, from the pulpit, to peach about values and policy, but to be protected from partisanship,” said Pesner, who runs the social and advocacy arm of Reform Judaism, the largest American Jewish movement. “Because if I were able to cross that partisan line as a preacher, I’d be under enormous pressure from stakeholders, from members, from donors. It would undermine my moral authority as a guardian of religious tradition.”
Preachers, he said, must speak truth to power “in the spirit of the prophets,” no matter which party holds power.
The Rev. Gus Booth, pastor of Warroad Community Church, an interdenominational congregation in far northwestern Minnesota, said he was ecstatic about the order, calling it an “incremental step” toward getting the rule overturned — an effort he’s been championing for years.
During the 2008 presidential primary, Booth openly preached against Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. He invited a newspaper reporter to his sermon, then sent a copy of the article and his sermon to the IRS, saying, “Hey, come get me,” he recalled.
He said the IRS started an inquiry but dropped it. Since then, he’s sent the IRS a sermon every year, showing he’s in violation of the rule but practicing his right to free speech.
“I ought to be able to say anything that I want to say, wherever I want to say it,” he said. “I don’t lose free speech rights when I step behind the pulpit. In fact, that should be some of the most protected speech.”
All Saints Church in Pasadena, California, felt the Johnson Amendment’s effects firsthand. The IRS investigated the liberal Episcopal congregation over an anti-war sermon by a former rector days before the 2004 presidential election. That pastor did not endorse a candidate but suggested Jesus would condemn the Iraq War and then-President George W. Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive war.
The church was not penalized, but it racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees over three years.
The current rector, the Rev. Mike Kinman, said the church supports the rule and that the clergy’s task “is to interpret our faith for the common good,” not to entangle faith in partisan politics. He called Trump’s order “supremely unhelpful” and said it could open the door to people who want to buy endorsements or route money to political campaigns.
The Rev. Don Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, said the Johnson Amendment can protect the clergy from being put in awkward spots, such as being asked to endorse a parishioner’s relative.
“History teaches us this: Whenever the church is too close to government ... the church loses its integrity,” he said.
Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz in New York City and Mary Esch in Albany, New York, contributed to this report.