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home : most recent : statewide implications August 16, 2017

5/5/2017 12:44:00 PM
Trump's order may encourage church members to speak out on politics

Scott L. Miley, Tribune-Star CNHI Statehouse Bureau

As Pastor Mark Melton was praying in the Indiana Statehouse on Thursday for national leaders, President Donald Trump was announcing he had signed an executive order easing the ban on churches' participation in political activity.

That order wouldn’t change how Melton preaches at the rural Christ Covenant Church of Sheridan. But the order could encourage some of the church's 140 members to speak out on issues, the pastor said.

"We don't bring politics into the church, and we don't bring the church into politics," Melton said. "But we have people that are very politically motivated and are very interested in the political arena."

Melton was one of 13 speakers participating in a National Day of Prayer observance attended by about 75 people in the Statehouse. None of the speakers addressed the executive order, though State Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, prayed specifically for Trump and his family. Last year, Delph prayed for then-President Barack Obama and his family.

Trump's order softens enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, under which a religious organization or a nonprofit could lose tax-exempt status if it engages in partisan campaigning. In 1954, then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson of Texas led a successful effort to have ambiguities in the tax law clarified.

"I think it's a good thing that we're getting rid of that and freeing up pastors to preach as they see fit and not trying to put the government in a forceful position over the conscience of our clergy," Delph said.

If churches begin merging their mission with politics, it would go against a trend noted last year by Brad Fulton, a researcher with Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Fulton found that the percentage of politically active churches was decreasing while there was an increase in service activity.

Between 1998 and 2012, churches participating in at least one type of service-related activity increased from 71 percent to 78 percent, while churches participating in at least one type of political activity decreased from 43 percent to 35 percent.

On Thursday, Fulton said, "There is a fine line between protecting religious freedom and privileging a particular religion. The line is especially thin when it comes to conservative Christians, since they are currently the most populous group in the U.S. and protecting their practice of religion can inadvertently privilege their religion.

"Thus, it is critical that laws uphold both parts of the First Amendment, which are to protect people’s right to practice their religion and to protect people from having another person’s religion imposed on them."

Fulton found that the most substantial decrease in political participation occurred among white evangelical churches. For example, between 1998 and 2012, evangelical churches that distributed voter guides decreased from 19 percent to 11 percent, and those promoting opportunities to participate politically decreased from 21 percent to 7 percent.

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