Earlier this month, President Donald Trump signed a religious liberty executive order easing the restrictions of churches and other tax-exempt organizations that aim to be politically active.
It was a promise Trump made while campaigning to provide relief to the religious, and greater freedoms for religious communities to be openly political without penalty.
The order, while not a full repeal of the Johnson Amendment, is a provision in the United States tax code that prohibits nonprofits from endorsing or opposing candidates and allows employers with a religious bent to object to some governmental infringement.
Cases, such as Hobby Lobby’s 2014 Supreme Court ruling, allowing the craft store retail giant to withdraw from forcibly having to pay for its employees to access some forms of Affordable Care Act contraception that violate the company’s religious underpinnings, would be protected, for example.
Months into the Trump presidency, Victoria pastors and their congregations have mixed reviews of his performance. In a red-heavy region like South Texas, Trump reigns in popularity.
Whether politics belong in the church, however, is still up for debate.
The Rev. Dan Fultz, of Grace Presbyterian Church, said while his congregation is mostly politically conservative, the church doesn’t endorse candidates or openly discuss politics.
“Our position is that we don’t really think it’s appropriate to openly make a political statement since not everybody in the church will agree,” Fultz said. “We’re about the love of Jesus Christ, which should reach across all political divides.”
Sensing the nation’s volatile polarity, Fultz said he’s drawn now to political news presented outside of the American news media format, such as BBC, or Al Jazeera, where the partisan debates aren’t as palpable.
“It’s not that I think there’s a liberal conspiracy on the news media, but I’m hesitant to put a lot of weight on the predictions and performance of Trump based on the mainstream broadcast media networks.”
From a congregational perspective, he said, some members believe Trump represents them and their religious ideals well and accurately, while others don’t.
But Fultz said the mission of the church and its politically opinionated congregation is to provide a place of civility and reconciliation for the community; a place that reaches across socio-economic and political divides and shares the gospel freely.
“Unfortunately, in my experience, the political climate in our country now is such that people are way too emotionally connected to their politics,” he said. “I don’t know anyone who can sit and civilly disagree on political issues without it escalating way too quickly to anger. The church should be able to speak civilly always.”
But for pastors like the Rev. Paul Barrow, of Greater Mt. Calvary Church in Silver City, Trump’s presidency does, at times, incense his congregation. It’s a congregation, he said, that feels abandoned and forgotten by a president who doesn’t understand the poor or African-American communities.
“His entire campaign ‘Make America Great Again’ is inherently racist and doesn’t represent us well. I don’t know how anyone can say Trump has any Christian values,” Barrow said. “If you’re Christ-like, you’re trying to emulate Christ, but he’s only concerned with his agenda. And what can make him money.”
Barrow said for much of his low-income congregation, a president who isn’t concerned or fighting for the economically disadvantaged is harmful in the long run. For some in his church, this presidential term may mean less money, higher taxes and more poverty for those already in financial crisis.
“I doubt very seriously he could do anything for our congregation or the needs we have. Most of my people are on fixed income, like me, and when I was trying to work to support the church’s needs, my disability income was cut,” he said. “I had to make a decision to stop working so I could keep my disability income coming in to help the church.”
Barrow said the church survives on fundraisers throughout the year, but with broken restrooms in need of fixing, the church has had to put the fundraisers on hold. And when there is not much money coming in through the offering plate, there isn’t much money to fix a bathroom.
“I’m hoping to get this work done somehow, because we don’t have the money. And it’s not that he’s not capable of helping us, he’s not willing.” he said. “If Trump could show some empathy for the people less fortunate, that’s all we ask. He’s all about helping people on his level. He’s only about finances, but he’s not showing me anything.”
Northside Baptist pastor, Darrel Tomasek, offers a different perspective, mentioning his congregation is comprised of mostly conservative, Trump-supporters. As a church body, he hasn’t heard too many political conversations occurring inside the church walls but supports maintaining and asserting Christian views publicly that may become political or already are.
“I would not want to see us campaigning for particular candidates, but we will express biblical positions in church,” he said.
Tomasek said he believes Trump is doing the job he set out to do during election season, to protect the church and its religious freedoms, one of the president’s primary campaign promises.
“To me, I think he’s making sure our rights are preserved, though I’m not so sure he’s doing it because he’s a passionate Christian,” he said.
Still, Tomasek, Barrow and Fultz each agree the religious climate in America is too polarized, and what is seen on the nightly news opinion shows may not accurately represent the views of many Christian Americans, at least not in entirety or with the complex nuances that are unique to varying congregations that are Catholic, Orthodox or under the umbrella of Protestantism.
Above all, each pastor said they would like to observe greater collaboration, more transparency and gentility while political discussions occur.
“I don’t care enough about politics to compromise the church and take a side on a political issue. To me, what’s important is the mission of Jesus, and to be reconciled with each other,” Fultz said. “I never want to lead a church down a road of substituting a political issue, no matter how right it is for the gospel.”