Abolish the Johnson Amendment?

In a recent editorial (“IRS Should not Enforce Silence from the Pulpit“), the Boston Globe gave a nuanced and thoughtful (if brief) critique of the current state of the law. And, in fact, I agree with their position.

As I (and the Globe) see it, the problem with the so-called “Johnson Amendment” which prohibits churches and other tax-exempt groups from specifically endorsing candidates is not that the law exists, but in how it is enforced by the IRS.  In fact, it’s a bit of a morass, with varying standards applied in various cases with varying degrees of zeal on the part of the IRS’s representatives.

As a minister, I do not specifically endorse (or condemn) candidates from the pulpit. (Although, I doubt anyone is in the dark about my political leanings!)

On the other hand, I have known of ministers who have condemned (or endorsed) specific political candidates from the pulpit in various ways, and I feel – even if it were allowed by the law –  this is a seriously flawed approach, from many different points of view.  I have even known ministers who have allowed campaigning politicians to give speeches from their pulpit, in clear violation of the Johnson Amendment.

Aside from the very clear “First Amendment” issues (regarding both Separation of Church and State and Freedom of Speech), I see such endorsements as a Pastoral failure: it is insensitive and dismissive, if not blind to, the feelings and experience of many who are in our congregations.  Ministers who make such a stand often find themselves in hot water with their congregations for precisely that reason, and rightly so.

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Refusing to Relate

Shattered Cross
“Shattered Cross” By LeBacco

A few (well, more than a few) years ago, my family and I moved to a home a little south of the small town of Honey Brook, near the border between Lancaster and Chester Counties in Pennsylvania.

This was deep in the heart of “Amish Country.”  Our home was on a small hill, surrounded by farms, many of which were owned by Amish families.

War and disaster loomed large in the minds of many at that time, since Y2K and 9/11 had both occurred within the previous couple of years, and we as a nation were pumping ourselves up into a frenzy in advance of the invasion of Iraq.  This sense of impending Apocalypse was also fueled by the “Left Behind” series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, which was a huge hit in bookstores at the time, as well as a major topic of discussion in the media.  (I might add that I loved the series, for the most part – good, fast paced and exciting stories.  But did I find their theology to be well grounded and realistic?  Not so much.)

A consistent theme many of my Amish (and ex-Amish) friends commented on is best summarized in this conversation I had with an Amish farmer’s wife who lived down the road from us (we frequently chatted when we stopped at her stand to buy eggs, chickens and produce):

“So, since you don’t rely on electricity or other modern technologies, when the world falls apart, you’ll be able to keep on going without too much problem.”

“No.  We may not have electrical or phone lines.  But we need diesel fuel to run our tractor; and we need diesel for the generator, which runs our milk coolers and other farm equipment.  If those diesel trucks stop coming, we can’t run the farm.  We’re just as dependent upon the rest of the world as you.”

Relationship: it’s always there, even when you don’t want it, inescapable and omnipresent.

So, in surveying the recent political flatulence over the issue of “Freedom of Religion” as portrayed in the recent and ongoing debate within Arizona and other states regarding who we can serve in our businesses and other organizations, I wonder: is the “right to serve only those that my religion allows me to” a real and achievable right, or a misguided attempt to delude oneself into thinking that we can simply dismiss those we find it uncomfortable to be around?

I can’t think of any group in this country more serious and steadfast on this issue of separating themselves from what they see as unwholesome influences then the Amish.  Many Amish avoid developing relationships with “outsiders” that are anything beyond the level of casual or business acquaintances.  In other words, they deal with “others” when they must, but only when they have to.  If they could, they would sever all ties with outsiders, but they can’t.  To survive in this world, they must accept some level of interaction with (and reliance upon) those whom they see as outsiders.

The proposed (and now vetoed) Arizona “Anti-Gay” Law (SB-1062) and all of the verbiage devoted to justifying it, didn’t go anywhere near as far as the Amish do.  All that it’s proponents wanted to do was to have the right to not serve those they found objectionable, for “religious reasons.”  No mention was made about their own reliance upon those who were “objectionable.”

If we’re really serious about isolating yourself from people whom we find to be objectionable, whatever the reason, then we need to do as the Amish do: isolate ourselves as completely as possible. After all, not only will “distasteful” people come through the shop’s door, but many of them are probably directly responsible for many of the products used or sold in our shops, as well as material we see in movie theatres, on TV or in print, not to mention the artwork on our walls, the furniture we sit in, and the clothes we wear.

We can’t have it both ways.  To say we won’t serve people whom we object-to, for whatever reason, means we must also be willing to reject anything they provide to us as well.  If not, then our objections are self-serving and disingenuous: not based upon a true and well grounded faith-based concern, but upon simply not wanting to have to deal with someone we find unsettling.

And yet, even the Amish have found they cannot go to that extreme.  We must rely on others, even others we do not find it comfortable to be around.  Relationship is inherent in not just the nature of human society, but in all of Creation.  Relationship – with God and with our fellow human beings – is also at the heart of the Christian Faith.  Relationship is inescapable, pervasive, and desirable.

And so I wonder why these issues keep on popping up under the guise of “Religious Freedom,” because it isn’t really about Religious Freedom, but about dictating to others what their place is – about confirming that where we stand, and our faith, is above reproach and not to be questioned, even though the validity of the others’ stance and their faith is to be questioned, and condemned.  It is about a refusal to acknowledge that we must relate with “The Other” in some way, even if we don’t want to.

“Religious Freedom” is also being used, in this instance, as a watchword for the politics of divisionforcing people into conflict with each other, building up reservoirs of hate and resentment that will give birth to even more sad and painful harvests in the future. 

And that is ultimately the greatest fallacy of all: that of using the excuse of wanting to exercise one’s faith without obstruction or interference by eliminating others from the discourse; by refusing to be in relationship with them.  And yet our faith calls for us to engage with others and to see in them not just God’s Love for them (and us), but God’s desire that we have fruitful and supportive relationships with all.

We cannot avoid relationship with others, no matter who they are.  God’s gift is that we have the freedom to choose to pursue that relationship, to nurture it to achieve all that it can offer us; or else to refuse to even try, and so limit ourselves, and thereby limit our ability to fulfill God’s call upon our lives. 

Peace,

– Allen

Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or gaining) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)

Just a Slut

rush_limbaughIn the movie “Definitely, Maybe“, Dakota Fanning asks her philandering father the question “What’s the male word for ‘Slut’?” To which he sheepishly responds “They’re still working on that one.”

It’s sad that in this day and age, the slang word for a female who is suspected of having multiple intimate partners is still an accusatory, denigrating term (“slut”); while the nearest equivalent for a male denotes admiration or envy (“stud”).

Ultimately, this reflects the ongoing imbalance of power between men and women in this society.  While there has been steady improvement over the last century or so, our language, laws and social expectations still grant men dominance and marginalize the role of women in relationships and society; we are far from resolving the problem.

This dichotomy has been highlighted in recent attempts by some Christian leaders, and political leaders at both the State and National level, to cast the issue of reproductive rights for women as a “freedom of religion” issue.

In my own view, this is alarmingly disingenuous.  “Freedom of Religion” has always meant the freedom to practice ones’ own faith without interference from the state.  It does not include the right to impose ones’ religious beliefs on others, nor the right to practice ones’ faith in a way that causes harm to others.

Yet, this is what is being proposed by those who are using the “Freedom of Religion” argument in the current controversy, that I, as a person of faith, have the right to determine whether another person has the right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  Or, to put it less grandiloquently, has the right to determine what is best for themselves.

So, which of the two trumps the other?  Should “Freedom of Religion” take precedence over our right to self-determination?  I think not.  To do so would push our nation in the direction of a Theocracy while turning the cry of “Freedom of Religion” into the perfect excuse for avoiding any responsibility or law that we find distasteful.

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