If President Donald Trump and the House Republican leadership have their way, stand ready for the two most contentious subjects in our society — religion and politics — to mix under one roof in churches, synagogues and mosques.
The same goes for your tax-exempt, shopping center-based, nondenominational house of worship, and of course, for the large-scale evangelical centers that gather thousands of celebrity-preacher followers.
One and all could turn into a political machine, the separation of church and state be damned.
Can you imagine the Sunday sermon spiked with political punditry — and a plug for Pepe Croqueta for the Miami City Commission, Jane Doe for the Florida House, Joe Blow for Congress?
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Of all the possible amendments to jam into their tax bill, the GOP has chosen the constitutionally questionable issue of allowing churches to become political forums in which preachers, ministers, pastors and imams can endorse political candidates.
Don’t roll your eyes at my bringing up mosques, imams and Islam. The incursion of religion into politics may be happening because Trump wants to please his right-wing evangelical voter base, but when you open a door to one religion you open it to all. As I so often feel the need to note these days, though it’s being tested this is still a democracy, and religious freedom is one of the cornerstones.
But arguing that the 1954 Johnson Amendment prohibiting religious organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates restricts the free speech rights of religious groups, the Republican tax bill seeks to modify it. And the only thing left after the makeover is that religious institutions still cannot make donations to political campaigns.
Opening the door to politicking in church could change religious practice and the religious experience as we know it — except perhaps for Catholics.
“The Catholic Church has no dog in that fight and it’s got nothing to do with the tax exemption,” Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski told me. “This is not the way Catholics view religion. The church doesn’t endorse candidates — whether there’s a Johnson Amendment or not.”
In fact, Wenski said, Catholics find themselves “politically homeless, because we don’t find a home in either party today,” with the church at odds with the Democratic Party on abortion and reproductive rights, and with the Republican Party on immigration and capital punishment.
During the last two election cycles, parishes have distributed voter guides approved by the Catholic Conference of Bishops that are focused on forming political consciousness through faith, Wenski said, but that’s the extent of the church involvement in elections. Although groups may call themselves, say “Catholics for Romney,” they have no ties to the church and aren’t — and won’t be in the future — allowed to engage in any campaigning on church grounds.
It’s not that way for some black churches that do feature political candidates “and no one bats an eyelash,” Wenski said.
Trump’s insistence on mixing politics and religion rings un-American, too, as our founding fathers had the wisdom to cement the distance between religious worship and the nation state in the Bill of Rights. Throughout the ages, religion has been one of the deeply rooted causes of war, genocide and persecution. Why would the United States in the 21st century want to open that retrograde, dangerous, and divisive door?
Religous dogma is the way, for example, that the ayatollahs exert ideological and political pressure in embattled Iran, to name one country. Is Trump planning the creation of a Christian theocracy in the United States?
Preaching politics from the pulpit is an atrocious idea, a right-wing power grab by Trump and Republicans who heavily courted Christian conservatives and African-American evangelical pastors during the last presidential campaign.
Only four months into his presidency, Trump signed an executive order “promoting free speech and religious liberty” — instructing the IRS not to punish clergy for political speech — during a National Day of Prayer event in the Rose Garden. Sweet-looking nuns from the Little Sisters of the Poor shook Trump’s hand as priests, pastors and at least one Muslim leader applauded. The Catholics attended, Wenski said, because they saw this as a pushback on “the Obama overreach” on requiring religious organizations to pay for employees’ contraception.
But neither Trump, nor the Republicans nor the religious leaders supporting him are doing organized religion a service. The “pulpit freedom” might prove costly. People have left churches behind for less treacherous reasons than having your sermon spiked with divisive politics.
Turning a house of worship into a partisan political forum might be one more reason to go find God elsewhere.