Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Government grants, churches and religious liberty

Patrick Henry (1736-1799) was one of the leading figures of the American Revolutionary period, perhaps most famous for his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech in 1775. Nine years after that speech, in 1784, Henry introduced in the Virginia legislature a bill designed to help fund the work of churches. The proposal would send tax dollars from the government treasury to churches as a way to improve life in the state.

You might expect churches to embrace such a bill and, indeed, many did. But some churches opposed the measure with the fiercest critics of Henry’s proposal being Baptists. Indeed, Baptists were so dead set against this piece of legislation that they organized a movement against it. Petitions opposing the bill were sent in from Baptist bodies all across the state. Baptists sent more petitions against the proposal than any other group.

In the end a bill that had a popular beginning failed and historians credit Baptists with derailing the measure. Why were Baptists so strongly opposed to legislation that would have helped the budgets of their churches? It is because Baptists considered church-state separation far more important than any benefit that might come from government funding of their mission. Baptists of the late 1700s agreed with the stance of Baptist hero E. Y. Mullins of the early 1900s, that using tax dollars to aid church work is “the essence of union of church and state” and Baptists opposed uniting church and state. Every Baptist petition sent in opposition to Henry’s bill declared that effort of the government to financially assist churches “contrary to the spirit of the gospel.”

This chapter from Baptist life is likely one of many that Holly Hollman of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) had in mind in a statement she released earlier this week expressing disappointment over the ruling of the United States Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer.  Trinity Lutheran Church had been denied a government grant from the state of Missouri for refurbishing its playground because of state law prohibiting taxpayer aid to religion. The High Court ruled that there is nothing blatantly religious about a playground and so denying the grant violated the church’s religious freedom rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. 

The BJC had filed an amicus brief urging the court to uphold Missouri’s denial of the grant because of the church-state entanglements that arise from direct government funding of churches, which has historically been prohibited and which has been explicitly barred by several states. In her statement, Hollman said that, while the court claimed to be standing up for churches with this ruling, it actually worked against “the hard-fought battles of Baptists and other religious dissenters that abolished government controls over religion and secured church autonomy.” Battles like the one Baptists in Virginia waged against Patrick Henry’s bill in the late 1700s.

Traditionally Baptists have believed that churches should not go to the government with their hands out asking for money to be placed in them. They have taken this stand because they have historically considered direct government funding of the church’s mission to represent a union of church and state which Baptists long considered contrary to the spirit of the gospel. After all, when Satan tempted Jesus with the power of the governments of the world, our Lord rejected the offer as the temptation of the devil that it was.

In so doing, Jesus placed a separateness between his mission and the power of government. He did not provide us an example of trying to amass government power or seeking government aid in accomplishing his goals and he died not with the sword of government in his hand but with the spear of government in his side.

In this season that we celebrate the birthday of the land of the free let us rededicate ourselves to advocacy of religious freedom. In so doing, may we affirm the mechanism for protecting religious liberty long cherished by Baptists: the separation of church and state. Where we see that mechanism weakened let us support it in the tradition of our Lord who rejected the power of government as a means of achieving his goal.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Sears and churches in a changing world

I was a seminary student in Fort Worth, Texas from the fall of 1988 until I graduated in the summer of 1991. After graduation I moved to North Carolina where I live to this day. I was the manager of a retail store in Virginia before moving to Texas and within five days of arriving in Fort Worth, I got a job as a part-time sales associate at a three-level, 240,000 square foot Sears store in Fort Worth Town Center on Seminary Drive only a few miles from my seminary apartment. I worked there, selling men's clothing and shoes, for the entire time that I was a student in Fort Worth. 

When I worked for Sears it was the largest retailer in the world. Shortly after I left the company Wal-Mart claimed that title. This morning I saw a news story proclaiming that the company that operates Sears (along with K-Mart) informed the Securities and Exchange Commission that "serious doubt exists" that the the 131 year-old company can stay in business. 

Like many traditional retailers, Sears is having trouble competing with online retailers. In Sears' case, however, several management decisions over the last two decades or so have exacerbated their problems. They are scrambling to come up with some cash by liquidating some real estate holdings and borrowing as they search for a new model that might allow them to keep their doors open. But there's a good chance that many of the 140,000 people employed by Sears might be looking for new jobs soon. 

Last Saturday, Terri and I wanted to get in a little exercise. It was raining, so we went to Cary Town Center Mall to take a walk. We made several passes by the vacant space that housed a Sears location up until it closed about two years ago. After I saw the news story about Sears' woes this morning, I looked up the location where I worked as a seminary student. It closed in 2002.

What's happening to Sears is further evidence that the retail landscape is changing rapidly, but then we all know that our whole world is changing ... fast. As Sears and many other retailers are having trouble keeping pace, so are many churches. A Lifeway study of 2015 revealed that 3,700 churches in this country closed their doors in 2014. The good news is that 4,000 new churches opened their doors that same year. However, one study indicates that about one-third of new church starts fail within four years. So it may appear that church openings are barely keeping pace with church closings, but the reality is probably worse.

Every generation of Christ-followers must prayerfully seek the best ways to translate the good news of Jesus Christ in an ever-changing world. I am convinced that, overall, the church will be successful in this task. Yes, some churches that are resistant to pondering new ways to tell the old, old story may close their doors. But I believe Jesus meant what he said when he proclaimed his intent to build his church and "the gates of Hades will not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18, NRSV).

I was a saddened to learn that Sears' doors may soon close. I'm even more saddened when I hear of churches that struggle to keep their doors open. Yet my occasional sadness at the plight of many churches of our culture is tempered by confidence in the promises of Christ. While the future of some churches may be in doubt, the future of the church is bright.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Why it's a bad idea to destroy the Johnson Amendment

At the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday, President Trump, repeating one of his campaign promises, pledged to "destroy" the Johnson Amendment. This provision of the tax code, passed by Congress in 1954, states that "all section 501(c)(3) organizations [i.e. tax exempt nonprofits] are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office." Setting aside the fact that President Trump is unlikely to make good on this promise even if he really tries, I want to point out why it should be illegal for nonprofits, especially churches, to be actively involved in political campaigns.

Before I get to why political campaigning by nonprofits should be illegal, it's worth noting that this campaign promise doesn't seem to make much sense politically. According to a Lifeway poll of 2015, 79% of Americans disagreed with this statement: "I believe it is appropriate for pastors to publicly endorse candidates for public office during a church service." Only 25% of Americans with evangelical beliefs agreed with the statement. So it appears that the overwhelming majority of Americans, including a huge majority of evangelicals, don't like the idea of ministers endorsing political candidates anyway.

Besides that, the Johnson Amendment is pretty limited. Sure, pastors cannot, in their official capacity as ministers, endorse a candidate for public office. But ministers can get involved in political campaigns on their own time. They can place political bumper stickers on their cars, stick campaign signs on their property and otherwise use their own personal time and resources to promote (or attack) a candidate for public office. They just can't legally do so on the job. 

Furthermore, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) is onto something when it says that allowing campaigning in churches does harm to the nature of church life. In a statement released BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler, she said, 
Inviting churches to intervene in campaigns with tax-deductible offerings would fundamentally change our houses of worship. It would usher our partisan divisions into the pews and harm the church's ability to provide refuge. To change the law would hinder the church's witness, threatening to turn pulpit prophets into political puppets.
Okay, but why should it be illegal for tax exempt nonprofits, including churches, to be actively involved in promoting or attacking candidates for public office? Maybe most Americans don't want nonprofits doing political campaigning, maybe the limitations the law places on ministers are limited, maybe campaigning in churches can do harm to the church's witness. But why should it be illegal

Simple. The Johnson Amendment assures that taxpayers do not subsidize partisan politicking. It also ensures that tax-exempt entities do not become a conduit for tax-exempt contributions to political candidates. Because it's not fair for taxpayers to subsidize partisan politicking and for tax-exempt organizations to serve as pipelines for tax-exempt donations to candidates, it should be illegal for tax-exempt nonprofits, including churches, to be actively involved in political campaigns.

Repealing the Johnson Amendment will literally require an act of Congress which appears to be unlikely. That's a good thing.

Monday, January 30, 2017

I was a stranger and ...

"...the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for ... I was a stranger and you welcomed me ...' Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you ... a stranger and welcomed you ... ?' And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was ... a stranger and you did not welcome me ..." Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you ... a stranger ... and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (From Matthew 25:34-46, NRSV)

This is a portion of one of Jesus' descriptions of the final judgment. Just sayin' ...

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Messengers, Not Delegates

There is a discussion playing out in news headlines right now that underscores the reason for a seemingly odd practice in at least some Baptist circles. As you have probably seen, there are deep divisions in the GOP over Donald Trump serving as the presidential nominee of the party. Indeed, opposition to Trump in party ranks is so strong that some delegates to the Republican National Convention are pressing for a change in the rules allowing them to vote their conscience so they won't be forced to vote for Trump.

In general, delegates can't necessarily vote according to their own conscience. By definition delegates attend a convention with delegated authority from some other body to vote according to the instructions of the body that sent them. Delegates are expected to vote according to the instructions of the sending body whether or not those instructions are aligned with their consciences.  

In the Baptist circles of which I've been a part for much of my life, those who register to vote at Baptist conventions or general assemblies are known as messengers rather than delegates. The reason for this seemingly odd terminology is linked to the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. One of the implications of this doctrine is that we believe it is wrong to coerce the conscience of a fellow believer (or anyone else for that matter). Messengers, unlike delegates, are expected to prayerfully vote their own consciences at a convention or general assembly. 

Every year it seems there are examples of the press labeling voters at Baptist conventions or general assemblies "delegates" rather than "messengers." Indeed, I've heard quite a few long-time Baptists make this mistake.  Certainly there are more pressing issues facing us than the names we use for convention voters. But it isn't often that we get such a good teaching moment to highlight the fact that many Baptists use the term "messenger" rather than "delegate" and the reason for the difference.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Jury duty ... again

This Wednesday I have to report for jury duty here in Wake County, North Carolina. Originally I was to report about two weeks ago, right in the middle of a cruise that Terri and I had been planning for months. Fortunately, I was able to get a postponement, but, unless I hear something otherwise in the next couple of days, I will have to show up at the courthouse later this week.

This will be the third time in 22 years that I have been called for jury duty. The fist time I was summoned to federal court in Wilmington, North Carolina. In that instance I was selected to serve on a jury and the trial lasted for a full nine days--nearly two full work weeks. The second time I was again selected to serve on a jury for a case in district court in Brunswick County, North Carolina. That trial lasted a full four days and I was elected foreman of that jury.

I don't mean to shirk my civic duty, but I've been asking around and I can't find anyone else who has done as much time in jury service as I have. I haven't taken a scientific survey and I'm sure there are quite a few people out there who have been called more and have served longer on juries. Yet in my circle of friends and family, I have found no one who has been called for jury duty as many times or served as many days as I have. Furthermore, numerous registered voters and/or licensed drivers (master jury lists are compiled from lists of registered voters and licensed drivers) have told me that they have been of jury selection age in North Carolina for 30-plus, 40-plus and 50-plus years and have never been called for jury duty.  

I realize that it's possible to be called for jury duty every two years. Yet after asking around and finding no one else who has served as many times or as many days, I'm starting to wonder how I'm getting so "lucky" about jury service. I'm beginning to have some suspicions about the randomness of the selection process.

If it sounds like I'm complaining, well, I guess I am. Still, I'll be at the courthouse on Wednesday and I'll do my best to serve well as a juror if I'm impaneled. But, to be honest, I'm starting to feel like I've done my time when it comes to jury duty. I hope I get off easy this time by getting excused.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Religious instruction in public schools

You have probably heard about the angry reaction to a homework assignment in a geography class at Riverheads High School in Staunton, Virginia. In an attempt to show students the artistry of the letters of the Arabic language, pupils were asked to copy a phrase that is translated "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah." This was a standard assignment from a textbook, not one created by the teacher.

While some of the responses to the assignment may have been over the top, it is easy to see why many were outraged. The phrase that students were asked to recreate is known as the shahada, the first of the five pillars of Islam. From an evangelical Christian perspective, the assignment would be roughly equivalent to asking all students to copy John 3:16. Many Christians balked at students being forced to learn in a public school the fundamental statement of faith of another religion and it's not hard to see why.

This episode illustrates why it is crucial to preserve separation of church and state. Learning about the faith statements of other religions is a fruitful exercise in the proper setting. Loving our neighbors certainly includes getting to know them, including their religion if they have one, especially if that religion is different. 

As an academic exercise, students should learn about other religions. Yet they should not be required to write or say the central affirmation of faith of any religion. The former is an important educational exercise about our world while the latter could be construed as a confession of faith.  

This incident shows how problematic it would be to remove the wall of separation between church and state. If government forces religious instruction on any citizen then that citizen's religious liberty is abridged. If all are not free then none are free. The best way to ensure religious liberty for all is through the mechanism of church-state separation. 

Certainly the timing of this case is unfortunate. Again, Christians are called to love their neighbors, including their Muslim neighbors. Recently our public discourse has included some vitriolic statements against Muslims and the event in Staunton, Virginia could further inflame such sentiments which is tragic. Nonetheless, this controversial homework assignment and the reaction to it reminds us that we are blessed to live in a land that enshrines religious liberty in its founding documents through separation of church and state.