Last week, President Trump announced he would repeal the Johnson Amendment, which prevents tax-exempt charitable groups from engaging in partisan politics. Some churches support this move, claiming the amendment violates their pastors’ freedom of speech and enforces too strict a line between church and state.

As a retired minister, I would argue just the opposite. It’s not that I believe the adage “religion and politics don’t mix.” I recognize that because religion shapes our values and priorities, it also shapes our politics. But to say individuals should live out the tenets of their faith in the political arena is not to say that religious institutions should do the same.

Repealing the Johnson Amendment would be a mistake. While I might wish that groups like the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project or the Audubon Society could advocate for candidates who support their causes, I see that this would create more problems than it solves.

It would limit the groups’ bases and diffuse their energy and funds. It could open them to possible recrimination through loss of tax-exempt status when their candidates lose. It would place on them an untenable pressure to toe a party line.

I find this danger particularly appalling when it comes to our religious institutions. The current Johnson Amendment does not prohibit churches or mosques or synagogues from upholding values, setting priorities or supporting issues. It does not prevent their leaders from engaging in political activity in their roles as private citizens. What it does do is say that our cherished religious institutions cannot become political action committees.

And that is a good thing. The work of democracy is the responsibility of individual citizens, not their institutions. As our country inches its way toward theocracy, we must look to history and remember that whenever religious groups exert too much influence over government, terrible things can happen.

Linda Carleton

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