People in Ennis Fant’s church didn’t need to be told who to vote for in 2016.
“They supported me,” said Fant, who ran for and won a Greenville County Council seat while being senior pastor at Pleasant View Missionary Baptist Church in Powdersville.
He said most churches, no matter their racial diversity, have little diversity of politics in the pews.
“As a pastor, you know your congregation so there is that political talk without necessarily saying ‘vote for this person or that person,’” Fant said.
Rules and laws and tax policies that have sought to separate politics and faith have largely been pointless, said Jim Guth, a Furman University political science professor who studies religion and the electoral process.
So when President Donald Trump unveiled an executive order earlier this month that took aim at the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits charities and churches from direct or indirect political campaigning for any candidate, it was met with indifference and some praise, he said.
The amendment, which became effective in 1954, remains in place and would require a vote of Congress to overturn, but Trump’s order says IRS agents should not act against churches that speak out on moral or political issues.
As a practical matter, the existing guidelines against supporting candidates remain the same but it is less likely for anyone to be pursued under the Johnson Amendment, Guth said.
It’s less likely by only a small bit, though, because there already was almost no risk of being pursued under the amendment named for Lyndon B. Johnson, who was a U.S. senator when it passed. he said.
Guth said he’s aware of only one church, in the 1990s, that lost its nonprofit designation under those rules. It placed a newspaper ad soliciting tax-exempt donations to support an ad that criticized presidential candidate Bill Clinton during the 1992 election campaign.
There is, however, some breathing room for pastors within Trump’s executive order, said the Rev. Jeff Stewart of Choice Hills Baptist Church in Greenville.
He spent most of his career as a missionary, working in about 60 countries. He said he was one of the first to go to Bulgaria after it became a democracy in the late 1980s.
“I’ve worked with people who were jailed, tortured, for their faith,” Stewart said.
There is no such fear in America but there are concerns by pastors who fear losing their nonprofit status if they step over some line somewhere, he said.
Stewart said he doesn’t hold back on politics when he preaches. Some preachers send in their political sermons to IRS officials as a challenge, he said.
“I’m glad for a president who supports us,” Stewart said. “Anything, anytime, a leader would do something in support of a church is a good thing.”
Stewart said the executive order should not have been necessary and, although it was perhaps a good thing, it also acknowledges a false premise that there is something wrong with a pastor endorsing a candidate.
“People misunderstand this,” he said. “A church’s nonprofit status should be automatic.”
U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, an Upstate Republican, said in a statement that the executive order was a “decent step towards restoring the freedom of religion in America, though more steps need to be taken.”
Duncan said he openly mixes politics with faith, including at his annual Faith and Freedom Barbecue.
“Faith invariably impacts people’s politics,” Duncan said in the statement.
He said he will push for further erosion of the Johnson Amendment and has co-sponsored legislation to repeal it but will also continue pushing legislation to protect those who object to abortion and who speak out on other issues of faith.
There are pastors in the Upstate who have felt relief from the executive order, said the Rev. Mark Burns, an Easley pastor who was a prominent early supporter of Trump during the 2016 campaign.
He said the pastors, who have come to him privately, feel more comfortable talking about issues like abortion and gay marriage without feeling they must self-censor to avoid losing their tax status.
Burns said he has never felt the pressure to stay away from controversy and politics. He spoke at the Republican National Convention and has been invited to the White House.
“We know that the Johnson Amendment was not wiped clear overnight,” Burns said. “But we know this president supports our faith. More leaders will be bold.”
Burns openly supported Trump and said he hopes other pastors will feel free to do the same regarding candidates and politicians they support
Fant, whose congregation supported him in his political run, said there was probably no need for the Johnson Amendment because pastors already talk about worldly issues and make their politics easy to understand.
Because of that, he said, it’s more vital that pastors urge get-out-the-vote operations because they will likely already know exactly how their congregation will vote.
“I think we’ve probably taken this idea of separation of church and state out of context,” Fant said.
He said there should not be rules on what pastors can and can’t say, but only restrictions on what government can do to religion.
“There are pastors who are afraid of the IRS. Nobody wants to lose their tax status,” Fant said.
Guth said he expects the IRS will follow the new guidelines and that may reduce the fear among religious leaders
“As a practical matter, this is more of a reassurance,” he said.
Follow Mike Ellis on Twitter @MikeEllis_AIM
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