I recently read Jimi Jobin’s articulate and impassioned plea to Pastor H. Wayne Williams to stop his endorsements of political candidates from his pulpit. Jobin appealed to Williams as a fellow Christian pastor on the basis of the importance of keeping Christianity and Jesus Christ above the triviality of modern politics. I, as a student of religious history, appeal to Williams on the basis that he is challenging, not continuing, the Baptist tradition in America—and that he is breaking the law.
A number of recent blogs have been written about this issue by prominent Baptists, namely Holly Hollman and J. Brent Walker, our friends at the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty. Hollman, argues that “every historic Baptist [should] oppose those (even if it is a fellow church member) who would act as ’king’ over the consciences of others by using the state to promote a favored faith.” Using a federally tax-exempt Church to endorse a political candidate surely fits the standard of this claim. Walker, in a lecture entitled, “Answering the Top 10 Lies About Church and State,” gave an excellent background to current arguments over barriers between religion and government including why the BJC continues to support strict separation.
H. Wayne Williams has been quoted saying that he “would welcome the history of [his] Baptist forefathers in going to jail over these issues.” This, in my opinion, is a perversion of the legacy of these forefathers. Baptists were a driving force in the fight for religious liberty in America—not, as Williams claims, for the liberty to use the state to endorse religion, but to ensure that all religious denominations are free from the unfair influence of the state or each other. I have to wonder if Isaac Backus or Roger Williams (who did routinely go to jail for voicing these ideas) would support H. Wayne William’s use of his publicly-subsidized pulpit to endorse a particular gubernatorial candidate, in this case, Gordon Howie. My guess? They would not.
What is at stake is not Pastor Williams right to endorse Gordon Howie; undoubtedly he can support whomever he pleases. What is at stake is how and where he can voice this support. As Reverend Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has said: “We have a dazzling amount of freedom to express the most controversial viewpoints imaginable from American pulpits. We just can’t have sermons converted into political advertisements for candidates.”
This is all due to the Johnson Amendment which was passed in 1954 and states that charities and churches defined as 501(c)(3) organizations cannot engage in partisan political activity. This amendment was revisited in 1987, and then again upheld in 2000 by a District of Columbia District Court Judge who upheld the IRS’s revocation of the 501(c)(3) status from Branch Ministries, Inc. that had publicly opposed Bill Clinton in his 1992 presidential campaign.
If Pastor Williams is interested in preserving tradition, why disregard 56 years of legal precedent and 374 years of Roger William’s legacy? I defend Pastor Williams’ right to speak his mind whether or not I share the same opinion—I cannot, however, allow him to distort the legacy of religious freedom in the United States of America. If Williams wishes to engage in more political discourse from his pulpit, I invite him to relinquish the tax-exempt status guaranteed to all 501(c)(3) organizations and do it in peace.
“If a sectarian entity feels that compliance with civil rights laws or other government policies violates its rights or morals, that organization can exist without government money and continue its efforts to persuade others of its moral perspective and policy preferences.”