Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine your rabbi dedicating his Yom Kippur sermon to why he will be voting for Candidate X come Election Day and why you should as well.
Now suppose the rabbi made that endorsement because your congregation’s biggest donor asked that he do so in exchange for an unprecedented gift to the synagogue that would fix the roof, retire the mortgage and pay for Shabbat kiddush for the next 10 years.
While the first scenario is problematic, the second was worrisome for Rabbi David Saperstein, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom who testified last week before a House subcommittee the same day that President Donald Trump signed his touted religious liberty executive order.
“What is a pastor to do if a congregant who is a major donor now makes his church gift contingent on an endorsement from the pulpit for his or her preferred candidate?” Saperstein asked. “What if a congregant asks a pastor for an endorsement when the pastor has endorsed other candidates in other elections?”
Trump’s executive order sought to blunt the so-called Johnson Amendment, a provision of the tax code that prohibits houses of worship and faith groups, as well as other nonprofits, from endorsing or opposing political candidates. According to the law, offending institutions can lose their tax-exempt status, but Trump’s order instructs the Treasury Department not to enforce it.
According to Trump, “If a pastor, priest or imam speaks about issues of public or political importance, they are threatened with the loss of their tax-exempt status — a crippling financial punishment.” He went on to call it “very, very unfair. But no longer.”
In reality, the executive order changes very little, as the law was rarely enforced in recent years, and it would take an act of Congress to repeal the Johnson Amendment. And then there is another part of the Trump order, which confounded many religious conservatives by instructing government officials only to “consider” protecting religious organizations that wish to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate.
Most national Jewish groups opposed the executive order. Notably, the Orthodox Union applauded it. And the presence at the signing ceremony of Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center — who spoke at Trump’s inauguration — and Rabbi Levi Shemtov of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) is further indication that many Orthodox Jews identify with this president, at least on this issue. And yet, according to a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, only 22 percent of Americans support clergy making political endorsements from the pulpit.
We are with the majority on this. Frankly, we see nothing good coming from religious institutions or their clergy promoting political candidates and see no reason to jeopardize the tax-exempt status of those institutions by enmeshing them in politics.
No matter how you frame it, partisan political activity is not what we understand to be “religious liberty.”