Public Policy Focus from Dr. Peter Bakken

Faithful Witness in the Public Square

January 25, 2018

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.

The Reformation Continues!

November 2, 2017

The months leading up to this week’s celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation have provided a lot of food for thought about the meaning and impact of this epoch-making event.

For me of the most important outcomes of the Reformation is what has been called “the affirmation of ordinary life”: the idea that Christians in their everyday lives in their families, at work, and in their communities serve God most faithfully by serving and safeguarding the well-being of their neighbors.

One way that we do that is as citizens – not simply by being law-abiding or by voting regularly, but by speaking out on social and political issues of our day that impact the common good, the rights of our most vulnerable neighbors, and the integrity of the whole creation. The public policy ministry of the Wisconsin Council of Churches is rooted in the affirmation of this dimension of our “ordinary lives.” It is part of carrying out our mission for “the healing and reconciliation of the world.”

The Reformation created (or simply exposed) deep fractures in Western Christendom, which even now are only beginning to heal. And beyond the variety of Christian denominations in this post-Reformation world, the religious diversity of our communities – including those who do not affiliate with any particular religious tradition – continues to grow.

This pluralism is challenging, but also enriching, and invigorating. One of the most hopeful signs of our times is when people of different religious, political, and philosophical perspectives work together for a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. In my role as Public Policy Coordinator for the Wisconsin Council of Churches, I have been privileged to participate in many such collaborations – in interfaith advocacy days at the State Capitol; joint initiatives on immigration, health and poverty; and coalitions around hunger, climate change, housing, the state budget, and other issues.

So it seems to me that in the ecumenical and interfaith advocacy work of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, one product of the Reformation meets another. Faith active in loving service of the neighbor’s good overcomes divisions and creates diverse alliances for the common good. And as people of good will work together to heal their communities and restore creation – the Reformation continues!

Learn more about the Council’s advocacy work here

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