In previous columns, I’ve made clear when I disagree with Pope Francis. But the pope was absolutely right when he called out the “virus of polarization and animosity“ that is beginning to permeate the church. “Little by little,” the Pope told 17 new Cardinals on November 26, “our differences turn into symptoms of hostility, threats and violence.”
The Pope recognizes that people of good will can disagree, that in our efforts to address the world’s problems, we can come up with different solutions. But he cautions us not to take those disagreements into the realm of judgment, where we believe ourselves the “good guys” and demonize those who disagree.
Frank discussion is good for the church. But not when disagreement descends into something mean and nasty, as it often does in the political realm.
That’s what makes one of President Donald Trump’s pledges so upsetting to me. He would throw all restraints off churches from engaging in full-throated political activism. As a Catholic, I don’t want to belong to a church riven with political dissension.
During the Republican National Convention, Trump promised to repeal the Johnson amendment. The amendment, quietly tucked into the Revenue Act of 1954 by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, barred churches and other tax-exempt charitable groups from engaging in partisan political activities.
Partisan activity jeopardizes two big benefits churches ― and other charitable organizations receive ― exemption from paying federal corporate and income taxes, and the ability to raise contributions that the donors can deduct from their federal taxes.
For more than half a century, the Johnson amendment has restrained churches, including mine, from issuing partisan calls to action from the pulpit. It also has meant that the contributions I make to my church are not going to be used to elect political candidates or support political parties I oppose.
The Johnson amendment isn’t perfect. A lot of churches get away with a lot of partisan activity without the Internal Revenue Service levying any penalties. Nevertheless, it has been a good way to moderate what religious leaders do in public.
If we remove these restraints, I worry what will happen. As a Catholic, I am aware that U.S. bishops often take positions that differ greatly from the views of the Catholic laity. For example, while U.S. bishops consistently support a legal ban on abortions, roughly half of all Catholics express support for keeping abortion legal. Surveys have shown that Catholics in the pews have far more tolerance for gay marriage, couples living together, and birth control than church leaders.
Hillary Clinton lost the Catholic vote in 2016. But Catholics supported President Obama. The Catholic vote in 2012 is particularly telling, given that by then, the U.S. bishops had been engaged in a lengthy legal battle over the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
Certainly the Johnson amendment hasn’t stopped bishops from hinting very broadly about their political preferences. But Catholics don’t usually get threatened with hell fire if their votes don’t reflect the bishops’ public policy views.
And the Johnson amendment has never prevented any church from getting involved in policy fights over specific issues such as abortion, contraception, gay marriage, immigration or our obligation to help those in poverty.
But to bring partisan politics directly into our houses of worship seems like a terrible idea. Right now, by and large, when I attend Mass, I leave my politics at the door. What would happen if our pastors started taking sides in elections and using the pulpit to do it?
Yes, there are churches where overwhelming majorities of members lean towards either the Republican or Democratic parties. But scores of religious denominations, including Catholicism, include members with varying political views.
In my parish, I know I am worshiping with people with political beliefs that disagree with mine. Part of my faith experience is meeting my fellow Catholics in a ritual that transcends politics. We all need love, forgiveness and tolerance. The faith we celebrate when we come together in prayer ideally will help us treat everyone we encounter in our workaday world with empathy and respect, even when it’s hard to see beyond their party preferences.
Celia Wexler is the author of Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope (Rowman & Littlefield).
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