On the Religious Liberty Order

At the First Things site, I have a post on last week’s executive order on religious liberty. I argue that the order doesn’t do very much about religious accommodation, but that doing little may be a strategic choice by the Trump administration. I also argue that weakening the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax exempt religious organizations from electioneering, would be a bad thing, and inconsistent with American tradition.

Here’s a sample:

[A]voiding partisan political contests is a longstanding tradition for American churches, and a very beneficial one. In the nineteenth century, Tocqueville observed that Christianity had a powerful influence in American politics; religion was, he famously said, “the first” of our “political institutions.” But Christianity’s influence on politics was an indirect one, and powerful precisely because it was indirect. Churches shaped Americans’ attitudes and morals, and Americans’ attitudes and morals shaped our politics. But churches studiously avoided party contests as such, and clergy “maintained a sort of professional pride in remaining outside of” them. As a result, Tocqueville observed, churches were never mixed up in the public mind with the vicissitudes of electoral campaigns, and maintained people’s confidence and respect.

This practice has served us very well. This is not to say that churches should avoid commenting on public questions, only that churches should refrain from endorsing or opposing particular candidates and parties, and avoid electioneering as such. In fact, I’ve never known a member of the clergy, liberal or conservative, who said he wanted to endorse or oppose a particular candidate from the pulpit. I suspect that, deep down, they all understood that mixing to that extent in partisan contests would interfere with their mission of preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments. If last week’s order signals a change in our longstanding American tradition, it’s not a change conservatives should celebrate.

You can read the post here.

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