Monday, April 17, 2017

About the Johnson Amendment

In 1954 Lindon B Johnson persuaded the United States Senate to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1954, requiring 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations to refrain from participation in campaigns for elected office. The rule remains to this day, and we call it "The Johnson Amendment."

President Trump has promised to "get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment." This has become a central theme of his administration's approach to religious liberty issues. President Trump is not alone in his determination to eliminate the amendment. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has long identified the repeal of the Johnson Amendment as one of their top priorities. A lot of organizations would like to see it go.

As for me? I'm pretty ambivalent about the whole thing. Here's why.

  1. Repealing the Johnson Amendment will have no impact upon what my church (or most churches) do. It is an empty gesture. The ADF already hosts a "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" encouraging pastors to endorse or oppose candidates as an act of civil disobedience. No church has ever been prosecuted for participating, to my knowledge. Every church who wants to endorse or oppose candidates for electoral office is already doing so.

    Most of our churches do not endorse candidates for office at present for reasons that go a lot deeper than the Internal Revenue Code. I can identify a number of reasons why I am unlikely to endorse candidates from the pulpit no matter what happens with the Johnson Amendment:

    1. My pulpit time is full already, thank you very much. I'm preaching God's Word, attempting to give my congregants sound, expository preaching, which I generally provide by preaching through books of the Bible. I don't preempt that content for elections. Period.

      In fact, once upon a time at an ADF event—and the ADF are good, good, good people. I thank God for them—I mentioned that the kind of preaching they were suggesting was difficult to integrate into a schedule of text-driven preaching through books of the Bible. In the conversation that ensued, it became clear that none of the pastors present who were using the pulpit to endorse or oppose candidates were preaching in that text-driven manner. I'm not saying that it doesn't exist anywhere; I'm just saying that the combination is difficult to achieve and therefore rare.

      What do you get when you mix religion and politics? Politics. There are plenty of examples demonstrating how political preaching, once it gets its nose under the tent, crowds out gospel preaching. Since my readers are mostly conservative (both theologically and politically), perhaps you can see this more clearly by looking at the churches on the left who have abandoned the gospel and betrayed biblical morality in order to preserve their political alliances. Well, if the gospel is supremely more important than the next election, then letting "good politics" shove the Bible out of the pulpit is really not that much better than letting "bad politics" shove the Bible out of the pulpit.

      Let's just preach the Bible and let God do whatever He wishes with its political implications.

    2. Preaching politics can shut doors for preaching the gospel. Sometimes you have no choice but to preach politics. There's a political aspect to the gospel. It comes to suppress a rebellion and change people's allegiances, after all. But when those times come, you learn that many people will not listen to a spiritual message if it starts messing with their political ideas.

      That shouldn't make us cowards when preaching the Bible steers us into political collisions. It should, however, make us unwilling to seek out political controversy that biblical preaching does not require us to address. Why offend people about lesser things and lose opportunities to speak to them about greater things?

    3. Even candidates with the right positions on the issues can become liabilities to the churches. When that candidate gets caught in an airport men's room or an FBI sting operation—that candidate whom you used your credibility and reputation to endorse, pastor—what then? The church is certainly safe when she stakes her reputation on Jesus. She's safe when she takes a stand on biblical morality and truth. When she ties her credibility to the behavior of human politicians, she is taking a serious gamble.

    Other churches feel differently. Other pastors passionately believe that they should be making endorsements of candidates from their pulpits. I take into account that reality in this point. Those churches and those pastors are probably already endorsing and opposing candidates. I don't think that repealing the Johnson Amendment will make much of a difference in what they do.

  2. Repealing the Johnson Amendment will have no impact upon what the IRS does. The IRS does not enforce the Johnson Amendment. In the 1970s part of my dad's job was to take Democratic candidates around to worship services at black churches to pick up endorsements. The IRS does nothing about that. As I have already said, the IRS does not prosecute those who participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, who are overwhelmingly Republican and white. So it is a little difficult to understand why some religious liberty establishments (generally on the political Left) are going apoplectic about the possibility that Congress will repeal a law that nobody enforces.

    Take a chill pill, guys. The only active process that this repeal would shut down are those annual missives from Barry Lynn, and reasonable people everywhere should rejoice in that.

  3. Repealing the Johnson Amendment will change what politicians do. And it is here that the measure should give us all some pause. What we really need is protection for conscientious objectors against SOGI laws and against pro-baby-murder zealots. Instead, politicians make it their top priority to make it easier for them to get political endorsements from us.

    "Religious liberty? Why, yes! I want you to have the liberty to endorse me in my next campaign!"

    I'll give this to them: They know which side their bread is buttered on.

    Personally, I do not look forward to a future in which politicians are pressuring me to gain the official endorsement of our congregation. I mean, I can answer, "Not in a thousand years!" as quickly as the next guy, but it is nice at present not to be bothered with the question at all.

  4. Government shouldn't engage in viewpoint discrimination against churches. But if the Johnson Amendment ever were enforced, there's no doubt that's what it would amount to. The IRS's recent history of targeting conservative groups (which had nothing to do with the Johnson Amendment) reveals that we may not be wise to entrust such power to a government that so easily engages in selective prosecution.

In conclusion, it does not violate religious liberty for religious groups to have freedom of expression. American religious liberty thrived from 1833 (when Massachusetts disestablished the Congregationalist church) to 1954 without a Johnson Amendment. It can do so again. Part of the benefit of religious liberty to society at large is to have spiritual organizations free to critique the government and the culture. Almost all of the time we can do that best without endorsing or opposing candidates from our pulpits or through the official auspices of our churches, but not always. I'd like to think that in a hypothetical electoral choice between Abraham Lincoln and Adolf Hitler my church would have something definitive to say. Most elections don't quite rise to that level of clarity, and most of the time most churches will stay out of the candidate-endorsing business. But both civil liberty and religious liberty remain intact and healthy even when churches have the freedom to speak about elections.

I'd rather President Trump devoted his religious liberty thinking to the many actual threats on the horizon, but if he wants to repeal the Johnson Amendment, I'm OK with that.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Pragmatism, Partnership, and Politics

It seems to me that a great many of our conflicts among Southern Baptists at this moment in time come at the juncture of pragmatism, partnership, and politics.

Sometimes we have spiritual convictions that lead us to adopt political goals. I have a spiritual conviction that I should not use coercive force to try to strong-arm anyone into false conversion by persecuting him for his aberrant faith. This spiritual conviction is soundly biblical. Holding that spiritual conviction leads me to adopt a political goal: maintaining First Amendment guarantees of universal religious liberty.

Pursuing political goals often drives us to practicing a little pragmatism. Pragmatism often leads us into strange partnerships. I know that there are enemies of religious liberty in our country. Preponderantly, they are people on the academic left who hold the views expressed by Chai Feldblum. There are enemies of religious liberty in our nation, and they are prepared to wage war against the First Amendment in the courts.

If I want to defend religious liberty against these foes (and I'm sort of assuming that when it comes to Chai Feldblum's agenda, we're all pretty much on the same page in this forum), it doesn't make much sense to say, "If the battle happens on this battlefield over here, I'll fight against the enemies of religious liberty, but if it happens on that other battlefield over there, I won't." No, if you want to defeat an enemy, you have to be ready to fight wherever they bring the war to you.

If Southern Baptists say that we will defend religious liberty in court cases so long as there isn't a mosque involved, Chai Feldblum and her ilk will simply file all of their cases against mosques. Want everyone to open their ladies rooms to men? Don't file that zoning case requiring open bathrooms against a Baptist church. No, if you do that, the Christians will fight you in the courts. File it against a mosque. Then the Christians will remain silent, and you'll get the law changed with a minimum of effort. After you win in court, the law will apply to all of those Christians churches just as much as it applies to a mosque, and you'll have won the war while the bulk of the forces arrayed to defend religious liberty sat in their tents at camp.

So, if defending religious liberty law means that I inadvertently benefit false religions, I'm prepared to do that. I don't see that as a partnership with a mosque; I see that as a partnership with likeminded Christians who are trying to defend the law. But I understand that my work to help churches winds up helping mosques, too, and I can see how some people could view that as an unholy alliance.

Sometimes our pragmatic pursuit of political goals (even those rooted in spiritual convictions) can lead us to strange partnerships.

If you think of it, it's a bit like deciding that you need to vote for a Mormon or a skirt-chasing, LGBT-affirming, New York non-Christian because you want better Supreme Court picks or hope to see some Executive Orders reversed. You have spiritual convictions about abortion or marriage or even religious liberty. These spiritual convictions lead you to adopt political goals. In pursuing those political goals, you find that you can only achieve them if you form some partnerships with people who are not a good match for you spiritually.

In the past two years we've had a lot of people on one side deriding the pragmatic choice of religious liberty advocates to defend religious liberty laws when they happen to become vulnerable in cases that happen to involve mosques. In the past two years we've had a lot of people on the other side deriding the pragmatic choice of other Christians to form partnerships with Donald Trump or Mitt Romney. In the one case, people have (falsely) alleged that the religious liberty advocates have endorsed Islam or otherwise gone soft on the exclusivity of Christ. In the other case, people have (falsely) alleged that the GOP advocates have endorsed sexual assault or have otherwise gone soft on the difference between Mormons or nominal Christians on the one hand and true Christians on the other hand. If one of these situations is an unequal yoking with unbelievers, the other is. If one of them is merely coincidental co-belligerance and therefore not a violation of 2 Corinthians 6:14, then there's probably room to seek to understand the other in the same light.

These problems and these accusations are made worse by the fact that sometimes we struggle to think clearly and communicate well when we're in the middle of verbal wars with one another.

Perhaps there's a way forward for us along these lines.

Perhaps we could all engage in a little repentance for ways that we've refused to grant to others the grace that we've sought for ourselves. I've expected people to understand my pragmatic actions in defense of religious liberty against threats that I believe stand poised to make life very hard for believers in the United States. If I will have those expectations, I ought to be more understanding of other people's pragmatic actions as they chose to vote for Donald Trump.

Perhaps we could all extend a little goodwill and benefit of the doubt toward people who actually share both our spiritual convictions and the preponderance of our political goals when they choose different pragmatic methodologies by which to achieve them. Honestly, if we can't live at peace with people with whom we share so much in common, it speaks poorly of our relationships with Christ.

Perhaps we could try not to be offended personally (or to lob charges of heresy) when people advocate for pragmatic strategies that differ from our own. Why don't we just make our case and try to let the strength of our positions persuade or fail to persuade? Why don't we recognize that the brother who is trying to make us all succeed together by a different plan than my favorite plan can be differentiated from the enemy who wishes to conquer us all?

Perhaps we could dial back our tendencies to assign nefarious motives to people who think differently when we advocate for our own pragmatic strategies. After all, none of us like it when others do likewise to us.

Perhaps we could recognize a bit of wisdom, even when it comes from the bizarre source of a deceased former Soviet Premier: "We and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it." Of course, Nikita Khrushchev, not President Kennedy, was the one who had tied the knot of war in the rope to begin with (this communique took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis), but his observation about what happens when we pull hard on the rope is nonetheless both picturesque and instructive.

The Southern Baptist cooperative relationship, like any relationship, only functions for as long as the people in the relationship say they're sorry when they wrong, forgive when they are wronged, and labor to permit both freedom to advocate for our various views and determination to cooperate graciously both when our ideas win the day and when they do not, for so long as we share a common commitment to the biblical convictions that we have articulated in The Baptist Faith and Message and around which we pursue our common Great Commission work.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Does Denying Religious Liberty to Muslims Violate the Baptist Faith and Message?


OK. I was just going to leave the body of the post at that one-paragraph, one-word response, but after a few minutes' reflection, I've decided that when nothing more needs to be said, I'm just the guy to say it.

Here is the full text of Article XVII of The Baptist Faith & Message (emphasis mine):

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it. Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others. Civil government being ordained of God, it is the duty of Christians to render loyal obedience thereto in all things not contrary to the revealed will of God. The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends. The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion. A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.

So, I intend to demonstrate three points (being a Baptist preacher). First, I intend to show that Article XVII explicitly affirms religious liberty for all people, including Muslims. Second, I intend to show that all of the information that we have about Islam today is information that was available to Southern Baptists in 2000, 1963, and 1925 when they drafted and revised The Baptist Faith & Message (and, indeed, was even available before then, when Baptists first developed their articulation of the biblical doctrine of universal religious liberty). Third, I intend to demonstrate that affirmation of religious liberty is not an area at which The Baptist Faith & Message departs from Baptist confessionalism, but that this is a sentiment broadly affirmed by other Baptist confessions of faith.

All of this will take me more than a single post to complete. Also, I write this series of posts leaving unsaid some important things because I am depending upon my readers to look to what I have already written on this topic. For example, it hardly matters what The Baptist Faith & Message says if we have not first considered what the Scriptures say. Fortunately, I have already made that case in a way that no one has yet been able to answer (not because I'm so good, but because the biblical witness is so clear and the arguments against religious liberty are so specious). I don't feel any need to republish what I have already published about the biblical justification for our belief in universal religious liberty.

I will therefore turn my attention to the first point. The Baptist Faith & Message explicitly affirms religious liberty for all people, including Muslims.

Consider the wording of Article XVII.

  1. "The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind." These words are plain enough on their face. Examining where they stand in the historical development of Baptist doctrine makes them even plainer.

    1. "The state has no right to impose penalties…" John Leland authored The Rights of Conscience Inalienable, in which he put forth the view that every person's religious conscience lies beyond the scope of governmental authority. That's an important point and I don't want you to miss it: If the government gives you the death penalty for going one mile an hour over the speed limit, it has abused authority that it rightfully possesses. The government has the authority to govern aspects of your behavior, including the way that you drive an automobile on public thoroughfares; it just shouldn't abuse that authority by doling out extremely harsh punishments for minor infractions. But Baptists have long said that religious liberty doesn't belong in the same category as that. When it comes to my theological convictions, government has no authority at all. Government does not grant the right to religious liberty and it cannot take it away. It is an inalienable right, alongside life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Before we even talk about what the penalties are and before we even talk about what the opinions are, from the get-go, the state has no rights over anyone's religious conscience.

    2. "…to impose penalties…" Here is religious liberty defined simply: Changing my relationship with God doesn't lead the state to change its relationship with me. The history of Baptist persecution at the hands of other American Christian denominations and the history of Baptist responses advocating for religious liberty make clear what has counted as inappropriate "penalties" for us. Imprisonment? Yes. Executions? Yes. But also, inappropriate taxation and inappropriate restrictions on the construction of houses of worship have long been misdeeds that Baptists have opposed as a breach of government's obligation to leave unfettered the religious consciences of men.

      If you went to seminary and studied Baptist History, you may recall learning about The Clarendon Code. The Church of England employed these laws to persecute Baptists. Among them was the Five-Mile Act, which denied Nonconformist pastors the right to reside (and have their house-churches) anywhere within five miles of locations where they had previously been caught worshipping. Baptists rightfully opposed these efforts to regulate away religious liberty.

      So, back-door attempts to use governmental regulation to restrict religious liberty have long been on Baptists' radar as inappropriate "penalties" used to quash religions that the state did not favor. The Baptist tradition of opposing these inappropriate penalties runs straight through The Baptist Faith & Message.

    3. "…to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind." I submit to you that "of any kind" means…wait for it…of any kind. Does "of any kind" include Islam? By any plain reading it does, but we need not speculate. Leland wrote "The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, [Muslims], Pagans and Christians." Here Leland has given us a list of what "all" means, and it includes Muslims (to use the old terminology, "Turks"). Roger Williams wrote "It is the will and command of God, that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most Pagan, Jewish, [Muslim], or Antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries" (spelling updated). Williams has told us what "of any kind" means, and it includes Muslims.

  2. "and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power." Again, the wording of the article is not difficult to understand. Religious opinions can change over time. People form their own religious opinions and they propagate them, influencing the formation of other people's religious opinions. We are conversionists; our entire system of belief is based upon the idea that people's religious opinions change.

    That includes lost people. Lost people sometimes get saved. Amen? You know, Muslims are not beyond the power of the gospel. The Lord's hand is not shortened so that He cannot save Muslims. But even apart from the salvation of lost people, lost people sometimes shuffle among systems of religious belief while they form their own religious opinions.

    To suppress religious liberty for Muslims is to suppress religious liberty for every American. The lost American who is nominally Presbyterian (but spiritually lost) today might choose next week to convert to Islam. From the moment that you restrict religious liberty for Muslims, you restrict it from Presbyterians, too. Yes, they have the freedom to continue as Presbyterians without fear of governmental reprisal, but the liberty they had once enjoyed (to convert to Islam without governmental interference) even Presbyterians no longer enjoy. Although I know as a theological truth that I, having been genuinely converted, cannot (by means of spiritual boundaries) convert to Islam, so far as the government is concerned, I presently have the full religious liberty to do so if I so choose. If the government were to take away religious liberty from Muslims, I myself no longer have the religious liberty (as far as the government is concerned) to choose to convert to Islam without suffering reprisals from the government.

    The Baptist Faith & Message supports my right to form my religious opinions. I have the right to form them in both bad ways and good ways. God may interfere with that formation. My parent may interfere with that formation. By God's grace a church might interfere with that formation. Government, we believe, must not interfere with it.

So, this is what The Baptist Faith & Message says about religious liberty—it affirms it as pertaining to all religions without exception, and the authors of those words penned them in an environment in which no Baptist was arguing that Islam was not a religion. I do hope that Southern Baptists will not treat The Baptist Faith & Message (not to mention the New Testament) in the same manner that Ruth Bader Ginsburg treats the Constitution. The Baptist Faith & Message cannot mean today what it cannot have meant in 1925, 1963, and 2000. It meant then, and it means today, that we support religious liberty for all religions, Islam included. Anyone who denies that religious liberty should extend to Muslims is in strong and direct opposition to Article XVII of The Baptist Faith & Message.

This series of posts is occasioned by reports that An IMB trustee from Tennessee has resigned from the board because he disagreed with the IMB's affirmation of Article XVII of The Baptist Faith & Message. Really, the story goes no deeper than that. We had somehow elected an IMB trustee who did not affirm The Baptist Faith & Message. The aftermath has illustrated for us why a confessional basis for denominational service is both helpful and necessary. That we had governing one of our institutions a trustee who opposes the IMB's confessional standard is a situation that is bound to lead to conflict, and it did. He resigned, and that was the right thing to do. We should be careful to replace him with someone who agrees with our denomination's statement of faith.

I presume that the pastor in question is a good man, a good pastor, a devout Christian, and a man with whom friendship would be a blessing. Those things are true of a whole lot of people in the world who cannot affirm The Baptist Faith & Message.