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Ginnie Graham: Johnson Amendment crucial as a protection of church, state separation

Ginnie Graham: Johnson Amendment crucial as a protection of church, state separation

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The best sermon I’ve heard in recent years came just before the 2016 general election, a divisive time when even the after-service coffee social was too uncomfortable.

In his gentle manner, Father Bryan Brooks explained how no one party or candidate completely captured the faith. He described point-by-point — from immigration to abortion — how the church did not fully align with any platform or person.

Therefore, search your conscience, do your research, pray and vote the best you can with faith as a guide. It stuck with me because my spiritual side seeks inspiration and understanding to life’s bigger questions. I already know how to vote.

Politics and religion are not good bedfellows. If anything, the combination can be dangerous.

Yet, many church-going people remember when someone got too political at the pulpit for their taste. And, this happens even with the Johnson Amendment in place.

The 1954 law was pushed through Congress by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson out of spite after some tax-exempt organizations opposed his candidacy by painting him as a communist. Those were fightin’ words.

The law states nonprofits, including faith institutions, cannot do things to help or hurt candidates or political parties; no endorsements, financial contributions or who-to-vote-for lists.

Religious leaders can, and often do, speak out on moral and social issues. They can lobby lawmakers and express opinions about judicial nominees and ballot initiatives.

Faith groups have been instrumental in shaping public views on health care, capital punishment, immigration, reproductive rights, poverty, education and criminal justice.

The law wasn’t controversial and passed through a Republican-controlled Congress and approved by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Only one church has been known to lose its status in the history of the law, according to Real Clear Religion.

This law has served as a crucial protection of the separation of church and state, a guiding tenant since the country’s founding.

It has been a bulwark against religious clerics gaining direct influence over elected officials and government.

Campaign financing is already out of control with political action committee secrecy. Allowing faith groups to add their financial power will continue fueling confusion, distrust and division in our political systems.

Since 2016, Sen. James Lankford has sought to repeal the law with fellow Southern Baptist Rep. Jody Hice, R-Georgia, and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, who is Catholic. This year, he is joined by Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana, a Southern Baptist and former conservative talk radio host and columnist.

In a name evoking patriotism, the Free Speech Fairness Act, House Resolution 949, would allow charitable organizations to make statements about political campaigns, if those statements are considered “in the ordinary course” of executing the group’s tax-exempt purpose.

Preaching sermons is obviously part of the ordinary course of a church’s tax-exempt purpose, so a minister could easily use the change as an excuse to tell everyone in the congregation how God wants them to vote.

The resolution was introduced in the House Feb. 4 and has been referred to the Ways and Means Committee.

It’s an unnecessary law that would also weaken faith institutions and trust in government.

Americans want elected officials to have strong religious convictions, and almost half want faith institutions to speak out on topics, according to Pew Research Center in a February 2017 report.

But, 66 percent oppose churches making candidate endorsements, which has been about the same result for a decade.

Republicans and Democrats have similar feelings; 67 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents and 74 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners are against churches endorsing specific political candidates.

Churches would be pretty shortsighted to jump into the sordid business of politics.

Attendance at U.S. religious services has been on the decline while those rarely or never attending have gone up, according to Pew reports and Gallup polls.

Americans who worship often do so to “feel closer to God,” states a Pew report released last year. Other reasons are for children to have a moral foundation, to become a better person or for comfort.

Nothing about seeking political information.

Those not attending faith services have more complicated reasons including not finding a church home and disliking the sermons.

Imagine the impact on attendance if the congregation knew a percentage of the collection plate went to backing candidates and political parties.

Faith institutions enjoy tax-exempt status in the spirit of the separation of church and state. With all properties and income free of taxes, it can lead to a lucrative business and temptation to seek political favor.

Religious texts contain stories warning of the love of money and quest for power.

The Bible states to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” That still seems a right path.

The Johnson Amendment has bolstered the First Amendment, not eroded it, by keeping the business of religion and government separate and should remain in place.

Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376

ginnie.graham@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @GinnieGraham

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