Faithful Witness in the Public Square

Faithful witness on matters of public policy is an important part of work of the Wisconsin Council of Churches. As people of faith, we are called to use our individual and collective voices on behalf of justice for the most vulnerable, the common good, and the care of creation. So it may seem odd that in December the Council opposed a measure that would have (seemingly) increased the freedom of churches and other religious organizations to get involved in politics.

Along with many other religious and non-profit organizations, we spoke against repeal of the “Johnson Amendment,” a law that for decades has barred tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office, and from contributing to their campaigns.

The President and some members of Congress have strongly supported the repeal, which was included in some versions of the 2017 tax bill. The Council signed petitions to Congress opposing the repeal and sent action alerts to the members of our advocacy network urging them to do the same. We sent a letter to Wisconsin’s Senators and Representatives that was also signed by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, Madison-area Urban Ministry, Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, the Wisconsin Jewish Conference, and WISDOM.

We made the point that people of faith, and their congregations, already have the liberty to bring their faith-based concerns into the public square. We can discuss social issues such as hunger, poverty, immigration, health care, environmental protection, gun violence, and racism. We can (within fairly broad limits) support or oppose particular pieces of legislation at the state and federal level. We can encourage and help people exercise their right to vote, and host strictly bipartisan candidate forums.

But for churches to support or oppose a particular candidate or party raises a whole host of problems. Party loyalties and candidate personalities could overshadow the moral issues at stake in public policies. Furthermore, if churches and other organizations can contribute to political campaigns and still keep their nonprofit status, they could become new channels for unaccountable and unregulated “dark money.”

It can be difficult enough for many churchgoers to be comfortable with talking about “politics” in church without the headaches that repealing the ban would create. The Johnson Amendment provides a bright line so that we can clearly distinguish between partisan politicking and faithful, civil conversations about public issues. Fortunately, repeal of the Johnson Amendment was not included in the final tax bill. It could still be introduced as separate legislation, so we should keep alert.

Our laws – the decisions we collectively make through elected representatives – express our beliefs about who we are and what we owe to one another, other creatures, and future generations. As we look ahead to the next election, I invite you to make use of the Advocacy resources on our website to help your congregation faithfully reflect on the issues that will be – or should be — on the agenda of our state and nation.

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