Religious Liberty, the Johnson Amendment, and the Imperial Cult

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A statue of Emperor Domitian (AD 51 – 96)

The Johnson Amendment, which prohibits non-profits (especially religious groups) from officially endorsing political candidates, is apparently terminal. I’m not sure who, exactly, was asking for it – save for a few folks who miss the golden age of God and country, when the broad majority of Americans at least paid lip-service to the God of the Bible.

Religious liberties are important. So much so, in fact, that Hillary Clinton lost nearly the entire Evangelical vote by (at least) implying that certain convictions, – regarding sexuality, and more – most of which are fairly mainstream among religious conservatives, should be declared anathema by the federal government. “Religious beliefs have to be changed,” she said. I don’t know what she meant, but everyone knows what it sounded like.

Which makes it interesting that anyone, anywhere is applauding the striking of the Johnson Amendment. To permit religious institutions to officially endorse political candidates is to alleviate the distance between Church and State – that much is hard to dispute. As a Baptist, that troubles me – because chipping away at the separation of Church and State helps the State domesticate the Church far more than it helps the Church influence the State.

If you look, for example, at what’s happening in Russia: Russian Orthodox churches, now sanctioned by the government, are increasingly becoming part of the the State’s propaganda arm.

Looking further back: the Protestant Reformation was always at its worst when one branch set about establishing Protestant muncipalities – the political aims of the State would largely govern the gospel proclamation within its borders. Calvin’s bizarro obfuscations regarding the connection between citizenship in Geneva and citizenship in the Kingdom, for example.

Likewise: what good came from Byzantine is largely overshadowed by the bad it created in the long run – the extremities that eventually necessitated the break from Catholicism began in good intent with Constantine and mutated, gradually, as the political necessities of the ‘Empire’ (among other things) helped to shape and distort the gospel witness of the Church through the ages.

The story never changes: you can’t Christianize a country, but you can co-opt a Church. Well nigh absolute religious liberty is the only defense any religion, Christianity included, has against being co-opted by Caesar.

Haggai’s one of my favorite books, and Haggai’s first sermon essentially runs: “You have become enculturated by the comforts afforded to you under a government that supports you. I’ll be taking them away now. It’s for your own good.” So we could lose religious liberties at the drop of a hat, and it’d be for our good.

But, as a policy, religious liberty for all is ideal. Jefferson understood what many today don’t – there are only two options: indiscriminate religious liberty, and theocracy. To establish religious liberty, there has to be an insurmountable wall between the Church (and Mosque, and synagogue, etc.) and the State.

In that scenario, First Baptist Church Shawnee, Emmanuel Synagogue, Grand Mosque of Oklahoma City, etc. can all work among themselves for the good of their cities (i.e. Jer. 29:7, “seek prosperity for Babylon”), but cannot be regulated by Nebuchednezzar.

State sanctioned religion, after all, is never the religion it purports to be. State sanctioned Christianity, history has shown, is never the religion of Jesus, and so on: it always amounts, instead, to a sacrilizing of whatever the State already values; State mandated religion is Jereboam’s golden calf.

The obvious exception, of course, the Nation of Israel throughout the OT, which, at least in theory, was a monarchy with Yahweh as its king. But this is America, today. And the slow erosion of Church-State separation is the way religious liberty dies. I’m no alarmist, of course, but this is nothing to be excited about.

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