David Saperstein, director emeritus of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, is an ordained rabbi who served as U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom from 2015 to 2017. Amanda Tyler is the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
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At the National Prayer Breakfast a little more than a year ago, President Trump vowed to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a federal law prohibiting houses of worship, charitable nonprofits and private foundations from endorsing, opposing or financially supporting political candidates and parties. Fortunately for religious congregations — and the entire charitable sector — he has not yet fulfilled his promise.
Trump’s failure to eliminate the Johnson Amendment is not for lack of will. Members of Congress pursued similar goals to the president, attempting to include language that would weaken the law as part of the tax reform bill, but that effort ultimately failed. And at one point, Trump described his goal of eliminating the prohibition on election activity as potentially his “greatest contribution to Christianity — and other religions.
We, along with thousands of other religious leaders and more than 100 religious denominations and organizations, vehemently disagree. Considering the Pew Research Center tells us that roughly three-fourths of the world’s population lives in nations with serious restrictions on religious freedom, we are confident the president can find far more effective ways to enhance our nation’s religious-freedom efforts.
Clergy and congregants worry that changing the law would have a divisive impact on their faith communities. Our houses of worship are among the few places that people of different cultural, political and ethnic backgrounds can find the sense of unity and comity so desperately needed in our nation today. There are enough differences over theology, music, liturgy and clergy without importing America’s partisan electoral divides into our pews. These concerns cut across all religious groups and political persuasions, as public surveys have shown, with overwhelming opposition to changing the law to allow taxpayer-subsidized political ads from the pulpit.