By Rev. Christian Iosso, Ph.D., Coordinator, Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, Presbyterian Mission Agency, Louisville, KY
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has, since its formal organization in 1789, supported the separation of church and state and the free exercise of religious faith. As a Reformed Protestant body tracing its origins to Reformers in Switzerland and Scotland, the independence and integrity of the church are key doctrines. The first General Assembly stated, “we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable: we do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others” (“Historical Principles of Church Order,” The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part II, The Book of Order (Office of the General Assembly, Louisville, KY, many editions).
The “Johnson Amendment” to the tax code ratified the long majority tradition of governance in the United States, based in the First Amendment, and its guidance has been rightly re-affirmed in the clarifying legislation of 1987 and 1996.
Presbyterian General Assemblies have re-stated our opposition to measures that would “establish” or give preferences to any religious body or interfere with religious liberties, which are based in God’s sole “lordship” of the conscience. Both in its pulpits and in public statements by its elected leaders, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has spoken out on matters of national and international importance for 228 years, as the Johnson Amendment imposes no restrictions on public witness to issues and actions of government. Nor does the tax exemption for all non-profit bodies (religious and non-religious) amount to selective favoritism, provided these bodies serve the common good.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) thus opposes by ethos and policy the elimination of the “Johnson Amendment,” the primary goal the “Free Speech Fairness Act”, which would allow endorsement or opposition to candidates of political parties, politicizing both the pulpit and church organizations as recipients of tax-deductible funds for partisan purposes.
The General Assembly spoke to the issues involved in 2014, reaffirming the principles behind the current 501.c.3 category, and further addressing the abuse of the 501.c.4 category of “social welfare institutions” for political purposes and personal enrichment:
Charitable contributions are only deductible by the approximately 25 percent of taxpayers who itemize deductions. Although tax-exempt charitable organizations (including religious bodies) play a critical role in our country, the nonprogressive means by which most tax-exempt organizations are financed means that nonprofits have a great responsibility to provide social benefit, broadly conceived, and to prevent leaders and managers from receiving undue personal gain…
Rules governing tax exempt “social welfare organizations” (501(c)(4)s) should exclude or strictly limit the eligibility of donations for partisan political purposes, parties and candidates, and the individual and corporate donors to or through such organizations should be made public due to their influence on the political process. (http://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/acswp/pdf/acswp_tax_justice._42.pdf , p.4)
The 2016 General Assembly addressed this matter even more directly: [The Assembly:] “Endorses the continuing prohibition of partisan political endorsements by religious
organizations or their leadership and other measures to respect both religious liberty and the separation of church and state. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) strongly supports the freedom of religious organizations to speak on matters of policy, but personal endorsements and partisan ties may present the appearance of or opportunity for collusion, special treatment, and the violation of nonprofit tax status.” https://www.presbyterianmission.org/wp-content/uploads/Election-Protection-and-Integrity-in-Campaign-Finance-2016-ACSWP.pdf pp. 2-3)
In speaking to the highly partisan ways many 501.c.4’s operate, the 2014 General Assembly did not seek to limit advocacy by religious bodies short of candidate endorsement or opposition. General Assembly reports in 1937, 1954, and 1988 contain extensive discussion of the scope of public witness and the limits of specifically partisan activity, including the justifiable taxation of “unrelated, or only remotely related” businesses (1954, I, 3). The 2012 General Assembly “urges the church to support a renewed emphasis on the proper role of government in society and the economy, as taught in biblical and Reformed tradition. The church does not govern or command in society but reserves its right, and duty, to counsel political leaders from the high place of conscience and our long Reformed heritage of social witness and policy application.”
The bedrock teachings of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are found in confessional statements that interpret scripture and apply it to church life, re-stating these truths as guided by the Spirit. This understanding of the need to renew and reform the church’s own life makes us doubly wary about the church endorsing any particular person who wields power. As stated in the Confession of 1967,
“The members of the church are emissaries of peace and seek the good of humanity in cooperation with powers and authorities in politics, culture, and economics. But they have to fight against pretensions and injustices when these same powers endanger human welfare.” (Para. 9.25)
The danger of blurring boundaries between church and state is also stated:
“Although nations may serve God’s purposes in history, the church which identifies the sovereignty of any one nation or any one way of life with the cause of God denies the Lordship of Christ and betrays its calling.” 9.45.
Additional reflection on faith and politics can be found in the 2006 General Assembly resolution, Lift Every Voice: Democracy, Voting Rights, Electoral Reform:
“For us, the separation of church and state has not meant the separation of faith and politics, for such a separation would be an abdication of responsibility. As the fine 1983 General Assembly study and policy, Reformed Faith and Politics
, explains, “the question of the relationship of God and Caesar” is not easily answered, but the distinction remains crucial. Without a sense of God’s sovereignty, and without respect for Jesus Christ and the prophets God raises up in every time, the pretensions of states and rulers can and do lead to the casual taking of human life, disregard for the ordinary person, and the despoiling of God’s creation. Politics, then, is too often the petty or tragic expression of human folly, but to disdain it is to be corrupted in different ways by a false innocence and overly simple thinking.” See: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/wp-content/uploads/2-votingrights-2008.pdf
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