free speech pulpit and micBoth sides are firing shots across the bow of their opponents in a revived First Amendment battle thanks to Donald Trump and a bizarre election cycle. This debate is absolutely necessary, but not for the reasons you might think.

Too many people have no idea what the Johnson Amendment is and why it is so important, but at least a few more are paying attention since Trump brought it up.

First, some background: Lyndon Johnson, a progressive, racist, and perhaps the second most liberal president in U.S. history was running for reelection as a Senator in Texas and he found a way to silence his enemies – Christians, conservatives, and Republicans. He slipped an amendment to limit the speech of nonprofit groups into a massive tax code overhaul bill and the rest is history. Conservative groups were campaigning against Johnson in 1954 and interestingly, they had concerns about communism at the time as well as Johnson’s big government ideology.

The freedom of religious expression was also restricted by Johnson’s shrewd, calculated move and many religious leaders were silenced – not necessarily because of the amendment, but due to their fear or ignorance of the law.

So a few weeks back, Trump rallied the base by claiming he will repeal the Johnson Amendment if elected president. Who knows if Trump would actually make good on his promise or if he will be able to get Congress to back it.

What are his motives? Did an evangelical Christian advisor convince him to talk about it in the hopes more conservative ears would perk up? Is his goal to create Christian Church super PACs?  Does he want to “politicize the pulpit” as some liberals claim?

Dusting off this debate has encouraged some on the right and infuriated some on the left, and there are many angles to discuss.

…I am not suggesting pastors and religious leaders must endorse candidates. They wouldn’t have to if they had already been preaching the whole counsel of God and speaking about sin, morality, the controversial issues of the day, and teaching on what the Bible says about each one. Moreover, informed citizens should already know where political candidates stand on issues of importance!

Sadly, we may now have one of the most distracted, disinterested, divided, and uninformed electorates in U.S. history.

…part of the new Republican Party platform states:

“Republicans believe the federal government, specifically the IRS, is constitutionally prohibited from policing or censoring speech based on religious convictions or beliefs, and therefore we urge the repeal of the Johnson Amendment.”

Trump said the Johnson Amendment has had a chilling effect on the nation. Agreed, and most secular progressives, Democrats, and atheists love it because godlessness has increased and Christian influence has decreased. He also declared,

“Christianity is under siege. Every year it gets weaker and weaker and weaker…

Trump is correct, but it is because Christians and conservatives concerned about biblical morality have practically surrendered the public square by our silence and inactivity as well as our tendency to duck the issues of sin, repentance, and God’s judgment.

It is true the amendment has been used by the IRS and even by the Christian Left to intimidate and silence the voices of untold numbers of Americans. Isn’t this considered bullying?

Under the Obama administration, the IRS has aggressively and wrongly targeted and fined conservative non-profits including many Tea Party groups while the media collectively looked the other way. Enforcement of the law has been a one-sided effort.

We do know the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” People often forget or ignore that second part! This was meant to protect people of faith and their deeply held biblical convictions – and that includes when they’re outside the walls of their church!

Our Founders believed the church had a right and responsibility to influence society for good and never imagined government would be empowered to censor Christians and restrict their religious expression.

Religious leaders not only have a constitutional right to address the moral issues of the day, many believe they have a responsibility to do so.  And, pastors should have the ability to speak out from the pulpit and support or oppose a political candidate based on where the candidate stands on the issues.

History now includes the last 62 years, which, of course, tell a very different story. Hands off, big government! The state should allow the church to speak freely and let the free market of ideas decide who wins…

We know in today’s culture, political correctness trumps truth. Christians have a moral obligation to defend the truth no matter the circumstances. Regardless of what happens, let’s hope the gospel will prevail over silent compliance or compromise.

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