How Government is Tying the Hands of the Church
Is a pastor free to preach his heart without fearing censorship or control from the government? At first blush, this question might seem rather ridiculous in the “land of the free,” where pastors since the Pilgrims have taken their stands everywhere from the halls of the Continental Congress to the streets of Selma, giving crucial moral and spiritual leadership to their fellow citizens.
Given that heritage, concerns about government censorship of our pastors ring a little hollow to some Americans. “My pastor seems free enough,” many would say. And, of course, many would take similar exception to any insinuation that the government is steadily encroaching on the liberties that have traditionally nurtured and protected religious faith in this country.
But perception is not always reality, and one subtle but potent threat to religious freedom has been quietly infiltrating America’s churches since 1954. That was the year Lyndon Johnson – then a powerful senator from Texas facing a tough re-election battle – suddenly found his road to Capitol Hill effectively blocked when two influential private non-profits that distributed thousands of pieces of literature against his re-election bid.
To Johnson’s mind, the impact of that literature had to be neutralized, and he soon hit on an ingenious plan to silence his opponents. On July 2, 1954, he proposed an amendment to a pending tax overhaul bill that prohibited non-profits (including churches and Christian ministries) from supporting or opposing candidates for office. It passed unanimously.
"The loss of freedom comes to a nation by many trails, and the Johnson Amendment is one clearly marked path."
Johnson’s amendment did more than stop the opposition of these two non-profits in their tracks. It turned 200 years of American history on its ear. For the first time, the federal government was actually authorized to punish a pastor for preaching about candidates during an election season.
Since that day more than half a century ago, pastors have been increasingly censored by the Internal Revenue Service from speaking freely from their pulpits during election seasons. Pastors who believe their faith has something to say about a candidate running for office, or who want to present a biblical perspective on an issue made prominent by an election campaign – abortion, say, or same-sex “marriage” – must remain silent, or risk losing their church’s tax-exempt status.
In other words, for 56 years the IRS has been acting as a state speech police, monitoring – and censoring – what pastors say to their congregations. And, if today the government can tell your pastor not to apply Scriptures to candidates and election issues, then tomorrow it will be able to restrict his Bible-based speech on other, non-election issues – like homosexual behavior – that the government decides it has an interest in protecting. After that, it won’t be long before government will move to restrict the speech of your pastor on even the very basics of the faith.
Now, whether you believe that your pastor should preach about candidates during election season or not, the point is that it’s not in the interest of religious freedom to allow the government to make that decision for us. Nor is it the job of the state to decide how closely a church can follow the mandates of Scripture in governing itself and fulfilling the Great Commission.
But in the wake of the Johnson amendment, local, state, and federal officials have gradually begun issuing themselves what increasingly looks like a virtual license to hunt churches by limiting where they meet, whom they hire, what public facilities and funds they can utilize, and how much their members may evangelize and minister within a community.
Here is the Church, Here is the Steeple, Open the Doors?
So, today, a federal agency can order a Louisiana church to cease and desist from feeding and housing Hurricane Katrina refugees – because its members invited those same people to a Bible study. New York City officials can deny churches the right to worship in empty public school buildings that are open to any other group. New Jersey can threaten to erase a Christian ministry’s tax-exempt status, simply for refusing to rent its worship facility for a same-sex “civil union” ceremony.
The loss of freedom comes to a nation by many trails, and the Johnson Amendment is one clearly marked path. Today, our pastors are not free to preach about candidates and elections; tomorrow they may not be free to preach on other topics. The constrictions that have gradually encroached on church freedom across these last five decades will continue to tighten, unless we stand boldly for the liberties that are our God-given and constitutional heritage.
Religious freedom is too important to be left to the whim of the winds of public opinion and political correctness. It is time to get rid of the Johnson Amendment and move the government out of the pulpits and churches of America.