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Pulpit privilege

Repeal the Johnson Amendment?

Pulpit privilege

(Krieg Barrie)

Last year I was in a car for three hours with a person I care about deeply. He is theologically adrift. Like an idiot, I talked with him about politics, instead of about what’s really important. I’m still kicking myself about that wasted time.

Last month I gave a lecture on journalism and worldview, leaving half an hour for the questions, and the first question was, “What do you think of the Johnson Amendment?” Lyndon Johnson’s amendment, passed in 1954, gives all 501(c)(3) nonprofit groups, including churches, a simple command: Don’t endorse political candidates.

My first thought: Why would a Christian pastor ever want to do that? The week has 168 hours. If blessed, a pastor gets half an hour to teach his congregation how to think through a particular passage from the Bible or think about a particular topic. Given our desperate need to learn what the Bible teaches, why would a pastor want to give up even a minute of that to endorse a candidate?

It seems to me that today’s key religious liberty battles are outside church walls.

Donald Trump has advocated repeal, and I’ve heard two arguments for it: Leaders are important, so shouldn’t a pastor do his best to get the right ones into office? Churches still perform a public service even if their pastors do endorse a candidate, so why should that be a tax deduction killer? But every endorsement will offend some church members: The cross is a stumbling block to many, so why should we add a relatively unimportant offense?

This is a judgment call, not one where the Bible gives clear instructions, but it seems to me that today’s key religious liberty battles are outside church walls. Will doctors have to pledge allegiance to abortion? Will pharmacists have to prescribe what their consciences rebel against? Will photographers, florists, and cake bakers have to celebrate unholy matrimony? Will chaplains have to withhold words of grace? Will Christians everywhere be free to follow Biblical teaching?

Presidents should use political capital on what’s important. Preachers who desire to wax political should make protection for their sheep a higher priority than latitude for themselves.

Lead us not into tests—but what if they’re good for us?

If you’re reading this in May, some college students at this moment are sweating their way through final exams and thinking unholy thoughts about their persecutors, I mean professors: “They say they care about me. Why are they making me suffer?”

Late last year Pope Francis said that the line in the Lord’s Prayer translated as, “Lead us not into temptation,” should be retranslated to make it clear that “it’s Satan who leads us into temptation.” Francis explained that God acts like a father when we fall: “A father helps you to get up immediately.”

Pastor John Piper, though, looked more carefully at the Bible. He pointed out Matthew 4:1: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Piper noted that God does “bring us into the presence of many tests and temptations. … Every step we take is a step into the presence of temptation. … That’s what life is: endless choices between belief and unbelief, obedience and disobedience.”

The book of Job shows how God is not Job’s adversary—Satan is—but God is like a trainer who leads his fighter toward the ring. Nineteenth-century theologian Albert Barnes had a key insight into what happens there: The word “temptation … means sometimes trial, affliction, anything that tests our virtue.”

As a professor for many years, I certainly saw the importance of testing. Many students implicitly implore their teachers: Lead us not into testing, but if you do, deliver us from evil by grading on a curve, or throwing out our worst score. But good professors will hold firm, for a test that doesn’t have clear consequences will not push students to study hard. Without exams, study lags.

So, students, do not be like the cheaters nailed late last year by Britain’s Daily Mail: “One pupil had tiny notes stuck under their fingernails. … Another wore a pair of shoes that had the periodic table printed across them. A woman tucked her cheat sheet into her bra.” And, my fellow old folks, let’s remember Proverbs 3:11-12: “Do not despise the LORD’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.”


  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Sun, 05/13/2018 10:35 am

    This column confuses me. I think--but am not sure--that Mr. Olasky is trying to say that the constraints of the Johnson Amendment actually help pastors to focus on spiritual edification, so that their congregations can meet the tests that God presents to them. If this is what he is saying, then I agree.

  • Vista48
    Posted: Tue, 05/15/2018 01:11 pm

    As Plato said, “The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men”.

    The blanket acceptance of the Johnson Amendment by American Christiandom was just another step towards irrelevancy of the Church in American life. Are we to conclude that the fitness of our leaders is a subject that should never come up? Or perhaps we should be warned that the church that lives by the tax break could very well die by the tax break.

    Posted: Tue, 05/15/2018 01:53 pm

    What would happen if the church (and her pastors) were to lay aside any and all carnal weaponry?

    Would politcal rhetoric, tactics, and endorsements remain in the arsenal?