|Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, meeting place for the Legislative Branch of the US.|
About a couple of decades ago, I purchased and read John MacArthur's book, Vanishing Conscience: Drawing the Line in a No-Fault, Guilt-Free World (which is a very educational read, by the way). In light of what is happening in the American landscape - politically, socially, morally, ethically, and, above all, theologically - I think it's time for a refresher.
A month ago, President Trump signed an executive order focused on religious liberty that sought unsuccessfully to weaken the effects of the Johnson Amendment on religious groups. If you're not familiar with this amendment, here is a crash course:
In 1954, then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson sponsored a bill that amended the tax code in an unprecedented way. Any religious organization involving itself directly or indirectly in a political campaign for or against any candidate could lose their tax-exempt status. Over time, the amendment metamorphosed into a larger issue, looming as a dark cloud over churches who dared speak out against the moral and political failures of Americana.
In short, the Johnson Amendment was and is a tool used to squelch the constitutional free speech of those who mount the pulpit on Sundays. So if a minister had designs on addressing a hot-button sociopolitical issue - racial profiling, mass incarceration, same-sex marriage, and abortion for starters - in the context of sound Biblical homiletics and exegesis, he had better hope that no one drops a dime on him. Never mind what the Constitution says. What the bold print giveth (1st Amendment), the fine print (Johnson Amendment) taketh away.
Meanwhile on the political gridiron, we have many on both sides of the Legislative Branch of our US government who are religiously affiliated. Those who occupy House and Senate seats have partisan supporters that are ordained and cloistered with such titles as "Pastor". A number of these Congressional leaders claim to be card-carrying Evangelicals. These individuals - mainly conservative Republicans - supposedly profess to make up what has been called at times the Radical Right and the Moral Majority. These groups are led and supported largely by Evangelical church leaders...which seems antithetical to the whole Johnson Amendment issue.
Which brings me to a tangential yet germane question: Just what IS an Evangelical? This article shows just how difficult it is to define this term. But generally speaking, an Evangelical in political circles seems to loosely connote a white conservative Republican who fundamentally believes in the authority of God's Word. But there is an unfortunate paradox here.
|John MacArthur, Jr., author of Vanishing Conscience...and, ironically, a pastor.|
One would think that preachers should be among the first, if not THE first, to speak prophetically about racism, justice, and the failure of the political machinations to look out for the people. When it comes to the people, the issues amount to a shell game. Not to sound crude, but when you're not the one running the shell game and you're already at a disadvantage before you start playing the game, the end result is the same: you end up playing yourself. Even when you want to blow the whistle on the game runner, the huckster is already halfway down the street ready to enjoy the trappings of his hustle. And the onlookers either pity you for being so arrogant (read: uppity) and greedy, or blame you for being so naïve and gullible...and neither group will lend you bus money to get home.
Which brings me back to Vanishing Conscience. What the book lays out is that there is a growing void of moral accountability in our world. When people look to preachers to stand for moral fiber, and they abdicate their purported God-ordained responsibility, it leaves some feeling like this is some sort of con game. What we see often is that preachers of this ilk are more complicit than courageous if issues related to the disenfranchised, demonized, or discriminated arise. The hypocritical "war on drugs" in the African-American community launched at the height of the 1980's crack epidemic is a great example. Why is it hypocritical? Because when it's opioids as an issue Caucasians face in 2017, there is no mention of the word "war", and I doubt that there will be "war" criminals incarcerated for a decade from possessing a small fraction of an illegal substance.
Since our political system and religious society have, to borrow from Ghostbusters, crossed unethical streams against warnings to avoid doing so irresponsibly, we now have an undercurrent of spiritual corruption that will be difficult to separate. The root of the problem is this: since the early days of this country, many politically active religious leaders have chosen not to be boldly vocal regarding unjust laws towards others. In doing so, they have violated the very charge allegedly or actually given to them (2Tim 4.1ff). And when the shepherds do not show the same concern for the speckled sheep as they do for the non-speckled, we get this: ecclesio-political hypocrisy.
(This also applies to those "pastors" who seem to want to try their hand at the shell game by joining such ranks as political action committees, often becoming talking heads on news networks who are majoring in the art of deflection, distortion, "alternative facts", and illogical rationale. Some of them are Black...but I'm not going down that road right now.)
Look, I get it. Satan seeks to "steal, kill, and destroy" whoever has an ounce of righteousness or holiness within him or her. And when looking through a spiritual lens, it is crystal clear that the eternal tenets of God's Word are being ignored by those who have been charged to keep them. And there are deeper reasons why.
Consider this: when racism as a sociopolitical issue is discussed, many ministers become silent or bunker up behind their more vociferous congregants. I imagine there are some "pastors" who do not agree with what their congregants believe about racism, but because some on their church boards or in the church pews may be racist, they will concede their prophetic position and pass on a milquetoast gospel to those having "itching ears".
|The legendary Dr. C.T. Vivian. Selma? March on Washington? Freedom Rides? He did it all...while being a minister.|
There is way too much to protect and so much more to lose: their salaries and retirement packages, the church's tax-exempt status, the influence they possess in their communities, the brand they built up for themselves. And like Achan who violated the cherem by letting his eyes get bigger than his devotion to God, many church leaders are living down to their calling and living up to Achan's reputation and name (which ironically means "troublesome") by siding with the majority and blurring the lines of righteousness.
The White evangelical church community throughout time has shown a pattern of being unable to admit to, speak out against, and stand up for truth. It's documentable. Oftentimes, individuals in these churches from the pulpit to the pew will not speak against those things because they will find themselves being in the undesirable minority within their group...religiously and politically.
There is a larger theological and moral issue here. In a time when a great number of pulpiteers are bent on building their brand instead of Jesus', it's hypocritical for them to then double back and preach on principles such as social justice within a church milieu - principles they are unwilling, unconcerned, or too calendar-heavy (read: busy) to put into practice. It's not surprising how politics can often take up more space on the daily agenda than imitating the Lord of glory, the Jesus of the New Testament.
For me, there is no other explanation for this behavior than this: like Adam and Eve, secularly or religiously "anointed" individuals who put end-game politics above the Word of God are likely sipping on some strong, partisan juice that is, at the end of the day, unauthorized and regrettable. And due to their inability to resist that prohibited nectar, everyone in their downline and sphere of influence bears the residual effects of that condemnable indulgence. Which makes the familiar refrain of "separation between church and state" that much more unimportant, seeing that the question now exists as to whether there is really any separation at all.