Letting churches promote political candidates would only tear us further apart

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I love the Christian church.

Though as a young woman, I cringed at the patriarchy in my traditional black apostolic church, which made me feel like a dangerous object of male temptation that had to be covered from head to toe to prevent premarital sinning. Not to mention how it kept me from even dreaming about a call to ministry.

Though as an African-American, I still cringe over how the church used scriptures to justify cruelty and slavery, and in some circles uses them to justify racism to this day.

Though as a gay woman, I grieve over how my LGBTQ brothers and sisters have become disaffected from the church at best, while others have committed suicide, at worst, because of a belief instilled by the church that God hates them.

And as a reverend in a small nondenominational Christian church, I’ve ministered to a lot of people like me, still dealing with the ramifications of all that difficult history – and still feeling unwelcomed by various congregations for so many reasons.

Yet, despite all of the things that already divide us, we still come to church.

I come, because I love the God of my faith and I believe in the Holy Spirit’s power to unify and heal us all. Because that’s what churches do – at their best.

From my perspective, a repeal of the Johnson Amendment, which largely prohibits 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations from being involved in politics, threatens all of that.

It threatens to create more divisions right where we need them the least.

The Free Speech Fairness Act, introduced in February, would amend the tax code to allow charitable organizations, including churches, to “make statements relating to political campaigns if such statements are made in the ordinary course of carrying out its tax exempt purpose.”

It’s seemingly a first step toward undoing then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1954 amendment to the Internal Revenue Code. A full repeal could see large churches become major political players: donating to campaigns, making endorsements, hosting debates – the possibilities seem endless.

I have visited and made myself at home in many houses of worship – Christian and otherwise – that I’m pretty sure hold political views that are different from my own.

It’s easy enough to suss out. Have a chat with a few of the members after service. Check out the bumper stickers on the cars in the parking lot. The worship leader may not directly endorse a candidate in a sermon, but you can often get a sense of who they might approve of by what social initiatives they support – or disagree with – and why. The black church in particular has a strong history of clergy running for and holding political office. It’s pretty easy to determine where they stand when they’re not behind a pulpit. Every church has its own culture and that’s a good thing.

Yet, I made myself at home in houses of worship of various political stripes because I love the Christian church. I love hearing a good exegesis of the scriptures, and I believe in a God who has the power to call us together – no matter what your race, color, class, sexual orientation or denomination.

In 1960, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was famously quoted as saying that one of the most “shameful” tragedies of our nation is that “11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour in Christian America.” I don’t know that things have improved too much since then.

If the Johnson Amendment were repealed, it would only further darken those lines of segregation and further hinder our progress toward unity.

I don’t know that I’d feel as comfortable walking into a church with strong political endorsements. And even if I did bring myself to go in, would I give an offering if I knew it could be used to support a candidate I disagreed with? Offerings have been withheld by parishioners for far less.

Would my congregation leave if they knew I supported former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s third term? Please don’t tell them. Could I have forced them to agree by endorsing him from the pulpit? Should I have? My own wife didn’t agree with my political choice. First. Time. Ever.

These are not the questions I want running through my head when I go to church, or when I plan my sermons. I’d rather think about the places in our faith where there is common ground. I’d rather think about ways of interpreting scripture, not ways of interpreting some candidate’s political platform.

Some argue a repeal of the Johnson Amendment would finally return free speech to the pulpit. But with all of the skeletons in the closet of the Christian church’s history, I’m less concerned about the Internal Revenue Service seemingly “censoring” preachers’ sermons, and more concerned about what some pastors would say without those restrictions in place.

So now I suppose you can guess who I voted for in the last presidential election.

But you won’t hear about that in my next sermon.

 

Aimée Simpierre is the Editor-at-Large of New York Nonprofit Media and a reverend at the Potter’s House Church of the Living God in Brooklyn.

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