Separation of church and state is among the most brilliant and crucial founding principles of this nation. You don’t need to look far into history, or the present world, to see how mixing faith and politics distorts both. Think of the Crusades of the Middle Ages. Think of the most unstable corners of the world today where the hard-line religious interpretations of a few are imposed upon millions as the law of the land.
Yet throughout the American experiment, people fixated on immediate partisan goals and emboldened by the self-certainty of religious faith have become impatient with the constitutional long-view. Constitutional scholars, on the other hand, have long defended the importance of that wall of separation. So why doesn’t Josh Hawley?
Hawley — Missouri’s attorney general, the state’s Republican Senate nominee and a former constitutional law professor — told a gathering of religious leaders in St. Louis last week that he favors allowing religious institutions to engage in partisan politicking while keeping their tax-exempt status. What he’s suggesting, in the guise of protecting religious freedom, is that taxpayers should be forced to fund a religious political movement for the benefit of the party he happens to belong to.
As reported by the Post-Dispatch’s Kurt Erickson on Tuesday, Hawley called for repealing the Johnson Amendment, the tax-code provision that prohibits tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from endorsing or opposing candidates, at risk of losing their tax-exempt status. Hawley, President Donald Trump and others who want to abolish that rule call it a free-speech issue. Those organizations have always been free to engage in any politicking they want — they just can’t expect to have that politicking effectively subsidized by the taxpayers via tax exemption.
That trade-off is designed to protect our religious as well as secular traditions, keeping the wall between church and state firmly in place. It’s why more than 4,000 faith leaders signed a letter opposing the Trump administration’s efforts to gut the law, insisting it “protects houses of worship from becoming centers of partisan politics.”
In a speech, Hawley warned: “Religious liberty is under attack in this country. … It’s a dangerous thing.” A recording of his remarks was obtained by the Post-Dispatch.
In fact, few things are more dangerous to both religious and secular rights than to pit the two against each other, as Hawley would do. The Johnson Amendment has endured for more than six decades as a balancing act — a way to keep the taxman’s hand out of the church’s coffers, in exchange for keeping religion out of our politics — both of which are constitutionally valid and laudable goals.
Hawley certainly has the right, and incentive, to call for tipping that balance toward the partisan politicization of religion. And voters this November have the right to weigh that view at the ballot box.