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Politics in Sheep’s Clothing

The idea of candidates stumping about from church to church, leaving worship with their pockets full of consecrated dollars, may turn out be the shell game of all time.

By means of some creative procedural moves, however, Jones has reached an agreement with the House leadership to allow H.R. 2357 to be brought directly to the floor for a vote. That vote will likely take place as soon as representatives return from their August recess.

The legislation aims to change the tax code to allow houses of worship direct involvement in political campaigns. This involvement includes endorsing particular candidates and funneling political donations to partisan political causes and candidates. Currently, houses of worship have an absolute prohibition on partisan political activities.

The wording of the legislation is fairly misleading. Rep. Jones and other bill supporters are trying to make the case that churches have no political voice. Calling their bill the “political speech protection act” makes it sound like faith communities are restricted from speaking out on social issues.

That is simply not true. Current law recognizes that houses of worship have the right to express their faith by addressing social concerns. There is no prohibition on this activity.

But more than misleading, this legislation is misguided and misinformed. Opening houses of worship to engage in partisan politics will invariably affect the character of both politics and religion—and not in a good way.

The unrestricted interjection of faith into a partisan political contest is bound to deepen the suspicion and cynicism that is already rampant among the electorate. After all, if we don’t believe candidates when they talk to us about the economy or world affairs, how will we believe them when they claim to speak for God?

The impact on houses of worship will be much more dramatic. After all, when a church or denomination endorses a particular candidate, it is literally putting God’s reputation on the line. It’s quite a claim to make that “this is God’s candidate” or “this is God’s own party.” The danger of faith groups losing their identity—swapping faith for ideology—is real. In fact, some faith groups are already pretty far down that road.

And don’t forget about the money. Allowing churches to engage in partisan politics provides a lucrative funding source for candidates and parties. The idea of candidates stumping about from church to church, leaving worship with their pockets full of consecrated dollars, may turn out be the shell game of all time.

The fact that many faith groups favor this legislation and are eager to endorse candidates is odd in one sense. The conservative faithful who support this legislation are the same ones who complain about the secularization of our society. They point to the school prayer debate or to controversies over the display of religious symbols and say, “God has been driven out of our society.”

And so the remedy for a growing secularism is to politicize the faith? If we make the church more like the world, how does that change the world?

Of course, we were warned this would happen. Jesus told us centuries ago that there would be wolves who dress like sheep. He just didn’t tell us they would be wearing “vote for me” buttons.

James Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala