Whenever David Jeremiah sat down to write his sermons, the ones he preaches before his San Diego megachurch and a national television audience, somewhere in his thoughts there was an unwanted observer — the IRS.
“You always have this thing in the back of your mind,” said the Turning Point Ministries founder, “that the government’s sitting back there waiting to hurt you.”
On Thursday, the president signed an executive order intended to put an end to Jeremiah’s fears.
“No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors,” President Trump declared in the Rose Garden surrounded by clergy members, including Jeremiah, a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board who said he had already been making his conservative politics known regardless of the law.
The president has been a vocal opponent of the Johnson Amendment, the provision in the tax code that bans churches and other houses of worship from campaigning for political candidates if they want to keep their tax-exempt status. His latest executive order was meant to undermine that tax law so that clergy can endorse candidates from the pulpit without fear of repercussions.
But the vast majority of clergy, even among the evangelical Christians whose votes Trump relied on, had never objected to the Johnson Amendment. In February, 89 percent of evangelical leaders said in a National Association of Evangelicals poll that they do not think pastors should endorse politicians from the pulpit.
And many interviewed after the Trump’s announcement are perplexed by the executive order, saying it won’t make any difference in whether they endorse political candidates in their sermons or not.
“I’m not going to speak about candidates whether I’m allowed legally to or not. I just don’t think that’s my job,” said David Renwick, the senior pastor at the National Presbyterian Church in Northwest Washington.
Parishioners tend to agree: In a September poll, 19 percent told Lifeway Research that they would approve of clergy making endorsements from the pulpit, and 79 percent said they would find it inappropriate.
Of course, some clergy have already been making endorsements, long before Trump directed the IRS on Thursday not to pursue penalties for pulpit speech. The practice is uncommon, though: Pew Research found in August that 3 in 10 poll participants who attend black Protestant churches had heard their pastors speak for or against a candidate, and 1 out of 10 churchgoers at white Protestant churches and Catholic churches said they heard endorsements.
Across the political spectrum, clergy who previously have not endorsed candidates said that they’re not going to start now, even if it’s legally safe to do so.
Duke Kwon, a pastor at the evangelical church Grace Meridian Hill, said he doesn’t believe churches should get behind candidates and that the executive order shouldn’t change that. “Their main motivation shouldn’t be IRS penalties,” he said. “Their main motivation should be, in my view, first, a commitment to the integrity of the gospel, which is our central message; second, a commitment to the unity of the church, one that’s not divided by factions; and third, a commitment to protecting liberty of conscience in our pews.”
Kwon says he has frequently talked about political topics from a moral perspective at his Northwest Washington congregation, where many members work in politics, both Republicans and Democrats. He’s wary of talking about politicians, though.
“Churches that are committed to Jesus and the scriptures don’t have the authority to preach mere human opinions. That includes political preference that often masquerades as divine law,” he said. “I think it’s vitally important that churches not assign divine authority, whether explicitly or implicitly, to the endorsement of political candidates … That binds people’s conscience in a way that I think is inappropriate.”
Other preachers simply don’t want their congregants to find their sermons off-putting.
“If one gets labeled either this or that in a partisan way, you lose whoever isn’t in that part of the spectrum right off the bat. To me the idea that one is going to start preaching politics in the pulpit just doesn’t make any sense,” said the Rev. Andrew Merrow, who leads St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Arlington. “They hear nothing more of what you say. You can preach the most eloquent sermon in the world, and the most convincing. But you’ve lost them right out of the gate. It’s too bad, but that’s just the nature of our polarized situation.”
Merrow has given sermons presenting his moral views on issues like climate change and immigration. But he prides himself on keeping his politics close to the vest. “People have actually said to me that they can’t figure out whether I’m a Republican or a Democrat. I say, ‘Why do you think I’ve been here for 32 years?’”
If Merrow thinks he’s kept his pulpit by keeping his politics to himself, the Rev. Jacqui Lewis feels just the opposite about hers.
“If I stood in the pulpit and I didn’t talk about health care for everyone, college for everyone, if I didn’t speak about the cradle-to-prison pipeline and Black Lives Matter, I think I’d lose my job,” said Lewis, who leads New York’s Middle Collegiate Church. “This is what it means for us to be people of faith … The Jesus we follow into ministry was a political animal in his day.”
Lewis said she has indeed been mindful of the law and has avoided directly telling congregants whom to vote for — for the most part. “Of course when it’s election season, we remind ourselves of what the line is. I’m not standing in my pulpit saying, ‘Vote for Hillary!’ ‘Vote for Obama!’ ” she said. “I think we’re conscious of the line. I imagine now and then I get up on the line a little bit.”
Yet even when Trump declared that she needn’t toe that line, Lewis said she doesn’t think she’ll change her sermons. She thinks her congregants value their freedom to reach their own conclusions and don’t want her to tell them directly how to vote.
Despite the relative lack of interest from clergy, Trump picked out the Johnson Amendment as one of his signature issues in the realm of religious liberty during his campaign. The order that he signed Thursday does not get rid of the amendment — that would take an act of Congress — but does tell the IRS not to prosecute preachers for their sermons. It also asks the Department of Health and Human Services to consider new guidelines which might allow religious employers, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor nuns who took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, to prevent their employees from receiving contraceptives through their insurance.
Those two actions are far more modest than an earlier draft order on religious liberty, which would have drastically expanded the ability of federal workers and private companies to act on their religious beliefs, including potentially by discriminating against LGBT people and single mothers.
The IRS has very rarely taken action against any house of worship for violating the Johnson Amendment. One historian of the subject knows of only one person ever prosecuted for something he said from the pulpit: A preacher arrested on obscenity charges in 1914. (The supposedly obscene word he used was “fork.”)
For the past several years, as many as 2,000 pastors, most of them evangelical, have been purposely testing the law once a year on a day they call Pulpit Freedom Sunday. Just one has been investigated, and no one has been penalized.
The small fraction of clergy who do make endorsements — both conservative and liberal — will keep at it just as they did before.
“I’ve never once considered the IRS in writing a sermon. I’ve never thought about that ever,” said Rabbi Daniel Zemel, the leader of Washington’s Temple Micah. He has not shied away from politics before, even putting bumper stickers on his car to announce which candidates he favored.
“I never even read the Johnson Amendment or whatever it is,” he said. “I never feel my religious liberty is constrained … There’s no country where religion is as robust as our country. There’s a church on every street corner. It’s fantastic.”