Making Pulpit Partisan would be Big Mistake

By Larry Levin

As Ruth McCambridge points out in her Nov. 10 Nonprofit Quarterly article about the proposed Johnson Amendment rollback in the House tax bill, thousands of nonprofits have spoken up with firm opposition to inserting nonprofits into the partisan political arena.

The main swath of approval among nonprofits for the change comes from the evangelical religious community. A number of influential pastors and their supporters have for a long while sought to remove the Johnson Amendment, a tax code enacted in 1954 that prohibits tax-exempt groups from supporting or opposing candidates. The proposed change is part of their perceived quid pro quo for supporting President Donald Trump and the House members who back this reversal.

Yet those who envision the move to be a (pun intended) godsend ought be a bit more cautious in their enthusiasm. For given American currents regarding church participation and religious attachments, supporters of the rollback ought be, as the saying goes, more careful about what they wish for.

The Pew Research Center on Religious & Public Life has studied a wide range of topics relating to the role that places of worship play in today’s American life. The Center has even found, for instance, that almost one in eight respondents say that, despite the Johnson prohibitions, their religious leaders have advocated for or against candidates.

But the bigger concern for those who desire a greater role for religion in America should pay attention to findings that other Pew studies have reported. The most important of these relevant to the Johnson issue relate to declining participation religious life across a number of religions and denominations.

The trends, plodding but consistent, show that fewer people are regularly attending a place of worship and that even those who are doing so are attending less frequently. The connection points, at least the physical touch points, are diminishing as a new generation of adults is experiencing demographic and lifestyle change and choosing their faith lives in myriad ways.

Among the trends that play into the landscape are a young adult populace waiting longer to get married and have children; smaller households; less residential stability, thus affecting the place of worship as the center of a community; attachment to other community assets as focal points; and a sense that religious commitment can be affected just as much by a direct personal connection as by a congregational one.

To be sure, there are exceptions to the overall trends, and that is precisely where the more fundamental and, to some extent, evangelical factions reside. Because that portion of the population tends to see the house of worship as the central node, they also view moral and civic issues in a more intertwined way.

That population, then, is generally more welcoming of a relaxation of partisan restrictions and views Johnson as a limitation on their ability to exercise speech and religious views from the pulpit. And with religious venue as the central connecting point, transmitting positions from the most meaningful place to assemble common voices appears key.

But in taking that position, while the tactic can arguably help with a minority of the population, it is likely to have the reverse effect with a large number of Americans. For if the structure of religious institution as the centerpiece of the community is waning for most, will they really find a further mixing of religion and politics from the pulpit to provide a touching they’re interested in?

Not likely. Political parties have found that young adults don’t care to be confined to an institutional view even within the existing party realm. As shown by the 2016 elections, and to an extent the two presidential cycles that preceded, millennials are quite able and willing to develop their connections through the more direct participation that online giving, or meet-up groups, or direct action through common cause, provides. The need to rely on conventional structures is rapidly declining.

So in that environment, how are those same young adults going to react to being preached at about whom they should support or oppose in elections? To think that kind of herd mentality is going to work on any but the most fervent and devout factions is not only simplistic, it’s wrongheaded.

In other words, the Johnson issue might provide a small amount of glue for those denominations and worship homes that already require or insist upon more adherence to strict views (though query how much added benefit it will get them, given that 14 percent already perceive their pastoral leaders are skirting the rules anyway).

But for others – those who attend churches, synagogues, mosques and beyond in which individual morality guides political choice – the change is likely to have a deleterious impact on worship. The result of trying to steer congregants to vote for or against a candidate seems likely to push them away, not toward, the place of worship.

And as young adults do begin their families, their considerations for which place to call their spiritual home is often guided by factors beyond a strict adherence to one point of view. Preschool, religious school, a place to meet other budding families, youth groups for teens, all are factors in consideration of where to attend or join.

These multiple entry points are even more pronounced when one considers the major intermarriage trends in America today. Like it or not, people choose their mates for many reasons other than the faith in which they were raised. So pushing an aggressive and insistent political viewpoint on newlyweds or leaders of young families is likely anathema to inclusion.

In short, there may be some limited perceived benefits to already highly connected religious communities in the proposed Johnson rescission. But if the goal is to develop more nuanced and meaningful roles for faith in America, those preaching to remove the restrictions on nonprofits are truly missing the boat.

Larry Levin is a nonprofit consultant and former Jewish nonprofit news publisher.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Jewish Light; reprinted with permission.