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

(RNS) The president trusts that power comes from human sources, and he would like the church to depend on them. I do not, writes F. Romall Smalls.

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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