Government & Politics Opinion

Trump’s religious liberty executive order: Don’t fall for it, church

President Trump signs an Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty during the National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., on May 4, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Carlos Barria

(RNS) Christian church, what is your power source?

According to President Trump, we in the faith community have been hampered in what we can say or do from our pulpits. To address our perceived lack of power, Trump signed an executive order “promoting free speech and religious liberty” a few weeks ago.

Don’t fall for it, church.

Trump trusts that power comes from human sources, and he would like the church to depend on them. I do not. The source of power for the Christian church does not come from the state. It comes from Christ.

The IRS code is why Trump’s executive order seems so enticing to some and extremely problematic to me.

For decades, tax-exempt entities such as charities and religious organizations could not ” … endorse any candidates, make donations to their campaigns, engage in fund raising, distribute statements, or become involved in any other activities that may be beneficial or detrimental to any particular candidate,” states the IRS website.

“Even activities that encourage people to vote for or against a particular candidate on the basis of nonpartisan criteria violate the political campaign prohibition … ,” the IRS rule continues.

Trump’s order instructs IRS officials to hold back on enforcing this regulation.

From my African-American church context, I understand how the church can use its voice and power for justice and political engagement. Many African-American churches, in our various iterations and denominations, have learned that to be disciples of Christ in America means that one is inherently both spiritual and political all at once. When you are the beleaguered and the excluded, the matter is personal.

African-American churches had no choice but to literally follow the model of Christ to focus on the plight of the oppressed and the rejected while challenging the status quo of both clerical and civic powers. And we persevered in spite of whatever the rules of the state were and helped transform the nation for the betterment of all. That’s what you can do when you follow the example of Christ and not the politics of man.

But we are not the only ones who found the true power source for the church.

Early European Baptists, often persecuted by other Christians for their beliefs about baptism and the Bible, stood fast by the idea that the church should not rule the state and the state should not govern the church.

More than 400 years ago, Baptists in Europe found that old models that grafted the church on to state were not only problematic but life-threatening if your religious beliefs did not align with those who held political power. If we heed the Baptists’ historic stance for the clear separation between church and state, we allow the church to be “unbought” and “unbossed” by politics.

I know many pastors, bishops, rabbis, imams and other religious leaders may be excited by the idea that they no longer have to follow those pesky IRS rules that prohibit direct endorsement and fundraising for political candidates, but they should not be fooled.

That kind of religious liberty comes with a high price that our already fractured society cannot afford. The church needs to understand that our collective power does not come from political decree. Our power comes from G-d and the amazing standard of Jesus the Christ.

(F. Romall Smalls is associate minister for social justice at Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and senior affiliate chaplain at New York University working with the Student Christian Movement. Reach him on Twitter or Instagram @romall06)

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F. Romall Smalls


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  • A tax exempt status is a privelege not a right – and it comes from the state not from any god. If you want to keep it obey the law. If not, give it up.

  • And did you give this same public warning to the National Black Baptists when they openly gave their national convention podium and microphone to Queen Hillary in 2016?

    Did Barack Obama give a warning? Did Michelle? Did the IRS?

    Nope. Nobody did. It was A-Okay, when it was Hillary.

  • You have me confused with someone else. I am not a Democrat and if what was done violated the Johnson Act then wrong is wrong. The law applies to everyone.

  • So an organization OF churches made an endorsement? What does that have to do with its member churches?

    Are you saying an organization representing churches is a church itself?

  • By endorsing candidates, the church becomes a political whore. Rather, the church needs to uphold what Jesus taught and let that inform the decisions of its people on candidates and everything else. I do not want my pastor telling me who to vote for because I have a mind of my own that I have dedicated to Christ. I intend to educate myself. When the church endorses candidates, voting for someone other than who the pastor or the church leaders believes is correct, ostracizes the voter from the church body (as I have experienced in this past election) and the church is supposed to be about community and love. It is supposed to be a safe place for people to get to know God and to learn how to apply their beliefs in the marketplace. The founders of America wanted church and state to be separate because they and their ancestors had experienced what happens when it is not separate – people being burned alive at the stake, imprisoned and tortured all because they do not agree with the ruling authorities. The founding fathers did not want this to happen in America but it will if present attitudes are not changed. It will happen if the church does not quit basing its hope on politicians rather than Christ.

  • I agree with you, Jim Johnson. The church can’t have its cake and eat it too. Why should it endorse candidates and still be tax exempt while other entities who endorse candidates have to pay taxes. That is not fair. And, by the way, the common thinking seems to be that if you disagree with the present administration that you are Democrat. It’s not true in many cases (like ours) but the people who voted for Trump seem to think in black and white (dualistically) rather than believe that someone could actually think for themselves.

  • Thank you. I’ve always believed that the pulpit is not a platform for political endorsement. It’s similar to how Christ drove away merchants that were selling material goods right in front of the synagogue.

  • So you’re saying it’s okay for churches to endorse political candidates, as long as they specifically do it while attending their annual national conventions?

  • Smalls is right that Christians need to not be fooled by Trump’s little show, but not for the reasons he gives. While the law is as he says, it is a paper tiger for the simple reason that the government refuses to enforce it even when pastors publicly (not to say loudly) violate it … probably because they fear that if they do try to enforce it the Supreme Court will declare it unconstitutional, while so long as it is on the books they can at least use it as a threat.

    As for endorsing or opposing particular candidates, not something that churches should indulge in regularly. Human beings will always disappoint, and by endorsing a winning candidate that accept at least partial responsibilities for the candidate’s actions once in office. But there are times when it is religious leaders’ duty to speak out, and a failure to meet the hour if they stay silent. If there is one thing the Old Testament is full of, it is prophets condemning the political establishment of their day.

  • The writer didn’t mention any specific churches. What specific churches are you referring to?

    An organization of churches is not itself a church.

  • The question is independent of political party, although it obviously applies to the Democrats and liberals of late.

    (Point is, the Johnson Act is ignored anyway when folks wanna ignore it — although Obama and his IRS clearly tried to make a crooked use of it in an attempt to bully Billy Graham.)

  • Both. You don’t come near THAT speaking platform (the annual national convention speaking platform) as an official presidential candidate, unless the top national leaders seriously want you to be Prez.

    If you watch the video of that gig, notice the expression on the black man’s face, (the man or men standing closest to Queen Hillary) when she’s standing at the podium. You’d think that they died and gone straight to blissful Heaven at the very sight of her. Pure endorsement.

  • Kinda dancing around there, Osh. Ain’t gonna work.

    The specific denomination is NBC-USA, the largest & best-known of the Black Baptist groups in America. Their annual national convention, where they make the biggest decisions.

    The specific political candidate they lauded was Queen Hillary, who even had the nerve to try to use a style akin to a black preacher. See YouTube.

  • Yes the dance was the original writer characterizing this as an endorsement when she was just s speaker at a convention.

    it’s a non-issue it turns out.

  • And again, is a denomination group the same as a church? So what if the denomination headquarter actual had endorsed a candidate, what difference would that make to the individual churches?

  • Careful Floyd, did the meeting formally say: “Hillary Clinton is the candidate you should vote for if you are a good Baptist”? An endorsement requires words spoken/printed, official words by authorized entities. Or is that your assumption because she spoke at their convention? Perhaps other candidates were invited but chose not to speak. Either way, being seen on the same podium does not constitute an endorsement. By the way, “Queen Hillary”? Where are your manners? Your misogyny is showing.

  • Thanks, Robert M. It was the temple – big difference from the synagogue. And it wasn’t that Christ drove them away for selling material goods, he drove them away for ripping off the people (It is written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer.’ But you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”…. ). The material goods they were selling were what the people used for their required sacrifices in the temple. Based on the quote from Jesus they were selling at a huge profit. I would say that our political climate is very much like the Sanhedrin catering to the Romans, in Jesus’ day. They were so concerned with being on the Romans’ good side that they could not see their long-awaited Messiah when he came.

  • lol it’s been a while since I looked over old Sunday school lessons but thanks for the trip down memory lane. It’s strange how lessons from back then have so much relevance today.

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