During a prayer breakfast last week, President Donald Trump told religious leaders that he would “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt non-profit organizations, including churches, from endorsing or opposing specific candidates. Under the current system, if a member of the clergy endorses a particular candidate, the contributions to his or her church are no longer considered tax-exempt. While rarely enforced, there are examples of this happening, as in the case of a New York City church that took out an ad against Bill Clinton.
Although some on both the religious right and left might welcome the opportunity to directly endorse or oppose candidates, there are good theological reasons to refrain from doing so, regardless of whether the Johnson Amendment stays in place or not.
For starters, if pastors oppose or endorse specific candidates, they risk going beyond their expertise and being distracted from their primary task. Abraham Kuyper’s vision of sphere sovereignty reminds us that God has created distinct spheres of society with various roles to carry out, including the church and state. The functions and roles of these two spheres are distinct, and we thus have a right to expect that a pastor and politician function very differently because of the spheres in which they are leaders. A pastor can certainly have political views and a politician can be religious, but being a pastor does not certify that one has a clear grasp of politics any more than being a politician validates one’s fitness for ministry.
A second concern is the question of Christian liberty and the nature of politics. Politics often deals with complicated questions and issues for which there are no easy solutions. Candidates for office take stands on a variety of issues and people rightly have a variety of reasons that weight their vote one way or another. For example, I am not a single-issue voter. I have friends and family members who are. I can give them reasons why I think being a multi-issue voter is better than a single-issue voter. But can I legitimately say it would be “unbiblical” to be a single-issue voter or “thus saith the Lord: thou shalt take more than one issue into account when voting?” At the end of the day, even while I disagree with them, I need to affirm space for different rationales and strategies among Christians.
If churches embraced this move, we would sacrifice our gospel unity on the altar of political power.
This affirmation of difference is necessary because politics is complicated. Many people agree about ends (say, to ensure a flourishing economy) but disagree about the best way to pursue that goal (via more or less regulation?). Many political issues are thus “wicked problems” with no easy analysis or solution. Where even policy experts disagree, it would be presumptuous for pastors and churches to bind the consciences of their members and say, “If you truly want to follow Jesus, you must vote for/against this candidate.”
Finally, if churches and pastors embraced this move, we would sacrifice our gospel unity on the altar of political power. As it is, our current political climate has people suspiciously looking down the pew, wondering if their brother or sister is on the “wrong” side of the latest Facebook firestorm.
We, however, are called to be a people who are defined by Christ, not by worldly categories—including those of Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative. As reconciled and reconciling, we believe, in the words of the Belhar Confession, that “God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ, that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
The more we proclaim our loyalty to earthly rulers, the less we bear witness to our true King. The more we align ourselves with positions and politicians who come and go, the less we will be true citizens of that city which cannot be shaken. We must therefore be vigilant, for churches and pastors who lust for political power may experience God’s judgment by getting precisely what they want: true citizenship in this world, but not the one to come.