There might be a reason why Congressman Ron Kind (D-La Crosse) doesn’t dabble much in hyperbole. He’s not very good at it.
Yet, that’s exactly what the nearly 20-year congressman did last week during the House Ways and Means Committee markup of the tax reform package. Kind managed to turn a debate on what should be included in the legislation into a bizarre warning about a forthcoming American Holy War.
At the heart of Kind’s speech was something known as “the Johnson Amendment,” a 1954 law named after then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas), which barred clergy and nonprofit groups from making political endorsements. If any of these groups did, they risked losing their tax-exempt status.
Repeal of the Johnson Amendment has been a priority of the Trump Administration since the 2016 campaign. In May, the White House issued an executive order which lifted restrictions on the Johnson Amendment. However, because the action was done via executive order and not through the legislative process, legal scholars view the order lacking any true standing in court. As a result of this potential legal jeopardy, the Ways and Means Committee pushed for full repeal in the tax reform package.
While concern over what might happen to America’s churches, nonprofit organizations, and the like is understandable in a potential post-Johnson Amendment world, where Kind took it was to strange and unusual heights:
Repealing the Johnson Amendment will politicize the pulpit. It will create civil war in the pews. It will establish Republican and Democratic churches, and synagogues, and mosques overnight. We all know it. We all know how tribal and how polarized our political system is today. We are self-segregating way too much already; with who are we deciding to affiliate, what clubs we join, what family members we even like to hang out with these days given our political affiliation.
You politicize the pulpit, it’s going to make the Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East look like a picnic. It will be conflict in the streets here overnight. And we’re going to be driving the children of our families away from organized religion.
You can watch full video of Kind’s comments here.
As much as Kind wants to portray American churches as some sort of neutral political ground, the fact is there have been conservative and liberal churches, sects, and faiths for as long as the country’s been around. This has become more so as different Christian denominations have settled upon different stances on various social issues such as abortion over the past few decades.
Few would argue that the Episcopalians; who were the first Christian denomination to perform same-sex weddings, would qualify as a “liberal church.” Even Kind, as a practicing Lutheran, would be well aware of the differences between the “Wisconsin” and “Missouri” synods; sects of the Lutheran church which are seen as either more strictly conservative or modernly progressive respectively when it comes to women’s role in church affairs.
African American churches have mixed their faith and their politics almost from the start since religion has been at the bedrock of social and political advancement since the days of slavery. Many of the most prominent (Martin Luther King Jr.) and infamous (Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Jeremiah Wright) political leaders within the black community began as preachers engaging the faithful at the pulpit.
As for any concern about drops in church attendance and driving children away from religion; Kind is a little late to that party there.
While there is legitimate concern about an openly political pulpit, the reality is that it’s been that way for a long, long time. Better we have a tax code that sides with free speech, not one which protects office seekers from criticism – be it in the press or in the pews.