File this presidential act under Help We Didn’t Need.
On May 4, President Donald Trump signed an executive order allowing clergy to endorse political candidates from the pulpit without fear that their churches will lose their tax-exempt status.
“No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors,” Trump said at a signing ceremony in the Rose Garden.
This was a real head-scratcher.
Oddly, nobody was trying to unduly censor sermons or target pastors. In fact, comparatively few preachers or their flocks even want their churches to become embroiled in partisan politics.
The whole subject appeared to be one of those tempests in a teapot, stirred up by the paranoid to stoke the gullible.
Sad to say, it also helps validate a contrary perception — it creates a blowback — that does great damage to religion. It reinforces the assumption among opponents of organized religion that churches want to impose their will on the government without having to observe any rules or exercise any restraint.
This new executive order counteracts the Johnson Amendment, a tax-code provision, that prohibited religious organizations, like other nonprofits, from explicitly endorsing or campaigning for candidates.
But as Washington Post religion writer Julie Zauzmer quickly pointed out, Trump’s executive order provided relief from an alleged governmental heavy-handedness that hardly anyone — including preachers and their parishioners — thought was taking place.
For instance, in February, a poll of the National Association of Evangelicals found that 89 percent of evangelical Christian leaders said clergy shouldn’t endorse political candidates from the pulpit, Zauzmer wrote.
That’s noteworthy, considering this group overlaps with much of the so-called Religious Right — those most concerned about supposed state interference with religious freedoms.
It’s safe to assume that more moderate-to-liberal clergy would be even less supportive of overt political activism by churches.
Another poll, by Lifeway Research, found that 79 percent of church parishioners thought it was inappropriate for clergy to tell them how to vote, Zauzmer said.
Besides, Johnson Amendment or no, I’ll bet most of us would be hard-pressed to name more than an isolated case or two in which the government has gone after a preacher for expressing political views in church.
So, the great majority of ministers, even conservative evangelical preachers, don’t use their pulpits for politicking. The great majority of parishioners don’t want to hear their leaders preach about politics. And even when some member of the clergy does cross the line, the government generally seems loath to act.
The executive order, then, was much ado about nothing — except for the bellicose few who get all the air time and the ink, those perpetually offended would-be kingmakers who oppose any restraint of their egos, including common sense or their parishioners’ feelings.
Meanwhile, in what I think might be a not-too-distantly related development, a pair of University of Kentucky psychologists reported that the percentage of Americans who are atheists is probably much higher than previously known.
In a soon-to-be-published study, Will Gervais and Maxine Najle determined that as much as 26 percent of Americans are nonbelievers, far more than the generally accepted 3 percent to 10 percent posited by earlier researchers.
The discrepancy is because many people are closet atheists: They don’t publicly express their views for fear of incurring the displeasure of their more traditional neighbors, Gervais and Najle said.
I’m not an academic researcher, and I’ve read only news accounts of the UK project rather than the study itself, but I suspect that Gervais and Najle are correct.
The responses I receive as a columnist don’t constitute a scientific sample. Still, I’ve been doing this the better part of 25 years, all told, and I’m here to testify that there are a lot more atheists among us than you might imagine. I hear from many of them.
It appears their ranks are growing, especially among younger adults.
At least the number of atheists who approach me has grown. And probably the No. 1 reason they offer for having abandoned any belief in God is their aversion to overbearing right-wing political activism by Christian preachers. They always mention Christians; how they judge other groups, I’m not sure.
What some Christian leaders view as their own expressions of free speech, many other people hear as hateful speech, degrading speech, hurtful speech. They think Christians want to run the government and everyone’s private lives; thus, they run from Christianity.
It’s a real conundrum, isn’t it?
You’ve got a statistically modest but very loud contingent of church leaders who preach politics and lobby to install their kings in secular offices.
They think they’re enlarging God’s dominion and promoting public decency, but often they’re driving the country further and further from the Lord.
Meanwhile, about four out of five religious people of all stripes, including the great majority of evangelicals, rarely if ever mix religion and politics.
They’re more concerned about supporting their families, loving their neighbors, feeding the hungry, educating the illiterate and healing the sick than about enlarging their earthly power. The kingdom they serve isn’t of this world.
They’re the bulk of churchgoers, yet their voices are drowned out by professional rabble-rousers on one side and ignored by skeptics on the other side.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.