Two faiths, but one mind on keeping politics out of the pews

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We come from two different faiths, but we and many other religious and denominational organizations are in absolute agreement that Congress must uphold one of the fundamental principles of our great country: the separation between church and state. That is in jeopardy with the tax bill that the House and Senate are working to finish in the coming days.

The separation of church and state was so important to our Founders that they enshrined it in the Constitution’s First Amendment, and it has remained an essential part of American democracy for more than 225 years.

{mosads}Congress should not undo this by repealing the Johnson Amendment. Sponsored by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson and enacted in 1954, the law prohibits all churches and 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. The House-passed tax bill would remove that restriction, allowing organizations like ours to become directly involved in politics and political campaigns.

The Senate did not include repeal language in the measure it passed early Saturday, but it will be an issue when House and Senate negotiators come together to finalize the tax bill.

It’s hard to believe that we need to convince the Congress to keep our most fundamental freedom — religious freedom for all people — but let us be clear: in conference committee senators must stand resolute for this bedrock American principle.

Roger Williams, who founded the first Baptist church in America, wrote in 1644 that there should be a “wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” Those words inspired Thomas Jefferson’s view that there should be an unambiguous separation between church and state.

The separation of church and state is designed to protect both and must be maintained. We should not in any way weaken the foundations of the wall, or we will seriously damage the integrity and independence of houses of worship.

When the tens of millions of Americans attend their houses of worship, they do so to pray and worship in fellowship with their families and communities. They come to heal and restore hope. They come to put aside a spirit of partisan division and work for justice, focused on making themselves and their communities better.

We need to keep the Johnson Amendment’s critical protections, or we will be inviting inappropriate religious entanglement with electoral politics, campaign donations, and special interests.

Repeal would encourage divisive manipulation of religious organizations by campaign donors who are not subject to customary campaign finance laws — a process that could make politicians beholden to religious majorities and darken the transparency of the electoral process.

That’s why over 100 religious and denominational organizations — representing Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Jews, Lutherans, Methodists, Muslims, Presbyterians, Sikhs and others — have urged the leaders of the House and Senate and the tax committees to keep the law intact.

Our nation needs a meaningful Johnson Amendment to protect democratic values and maintain the separation of church and state, which are essential to ensuring the integrity, autonomy and harmony of America’s vibrant and diverse religious communities.

The need for separation that Williams wrote about is even more important today given the state of our “wilderness.” Our society is already challenging enough for people of faith without bringing partisan politics into our pews. Congress, please don’t inject politicking into our houses of worship.

Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe is the General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church, and Rabbi David Fox Sandmel, Ph.D., is Director of Interreligious Engagement at the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish civil rights group.


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