With the loss of the Johnson Amendment, the time has come for Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity

Today the president signed an Executive Order, once again proving that he is incapable of actual governance according to the strictures of the Constitution, that seriously erodes the Johnson Amendment. Introduced in 1954 by then-Senator Lyndon Banes Johnson, the legislation does not allow tax-exempt organizations to be both overtly political and avoid paying taxes. This essentially makes the Johnson Amendment an IRS matter, not a free-speech matter, but Evangelical Christians cry foul and persecution, despite the fact that, as John Wagner reports in The Washington Post,  “Violations of the Johnson Amendment are infrequently pursued by the IRS, but evangelicals claim it has been used selectively against them, preventing Christian leaders from speaking freely in church.” Alas, here’s the rub. Too many Evangelical Christians–who voted overwhelmingly for a thrice-married servant of Mammon with a penchant for being handsy and believes Communion is a magic cracker–fear that they can’t be openly misogynistic, homophobic, Islamaphobic, and xenophobic in the name of Jesus Christ.


In the Evangelical mindset, religious freedom is the ability to deny service to a dying person because he or she is “objectionable,” including even vital medical treatment.  It is essentially saying that being an asshole is a religious right, and the president just gave credence to this so-called “war on Christianity” that is neither war nor against Christianity.

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I don’t hear Evangelicals decrying the genocide of gays in Chechnya. In fact, Evangelical Christians arguing for religious freedom are often the ones who spread rabid anti-LGBTQ hatred overseas.  There is not a reasonable argument to be made that today’s Executive Order is anything other than a wink and a nod to those who wish to scream about the supposed splinter of sin in the eyes of others while ignoring the oak tree in their own. Don’t be fooled; this has nothing to do with following Jesus Christ.

I’m a pastor who is very active on issues often deemed political. I argue that these issues actually belong to the Gospel before they belong to American politics, but I toe the line; I do not mention politicians by name from the pulpit, and I try to speak about on issues, not persons. I do this because if the church I serve were to pay taxes, it would fold. Property tax alone where we are would take a significant portion of our budget; I already am only hired for 18 hours a week, but work much more because I am not a servant of Mammon. I am a servant of Jesus Christ. I find it interesting that most of the leaders claiming religious persecution pastor the largest, most wealthy churches and the pastors have a huge salary. They also are often pastors who more preach self-help (buy my book!) than the Gospel. There are exceptions, but not many.

I don’t want to be associated with them anymore.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a name that is cynically invoked by many Evangelicals, set forth a concept called “religionless Christianity.” It is a controversial idea that if oft-misunderstood. Bonhoeffer argued that religious doctrine interfered with people’s ability to connect with God, especially in an increasingly irreligious world. Bonhoeffer would not have claimed that the answer is nondenominationalism and coffee bars instead of a sacristy. Bonhoeffer taught us that the power of the Incarnation is that God experienced the joys and sorrows of human life, just as we do now; if we want union with Christ, we seek it in community, we seek in solidarity with the suffering of those around us. If we want to understand God, we must understand Christ’s suffering; and if we want to understand Christ’s suffering, we must address the suffering that the world causes to others.

I am a pastor within the United Christ of Christ (UCC) serving a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation. I am a firm believer in denominationalism because it keeps pastors accountable; it means that we have to undergo training, that we report to local, regional, and national governing bodies; in the Reform tradition, it means that we pastors have very little power compared with the congregation, which is perhaps the single greatest polity development in the history of the faith (even though I sometimes yearn for the power of a priest, I’m glad I don’t have it). But if today is a signal of what Christianity is and will remain, it needs to go. Our religion needs to die because this travesty of political demagoguery has as much to do with Jesus Christ as does a pine tree at Macy’s in December

It takes money to run a church. Sadly, when many people hear that I am a pastor they make assumptions; my physical appearance does not help, either, as most people aren’t used to a pastor covered in tattoos. They assume that I don’t pay taxes, which I can assure you, I do. We pastors are often taxed heavier because we are considered independent contractors but still receive W-2s. My meager salary is heavily taxed, but that’s okay.  I didn’t take a literal vow of poverty but I did in my heart. I follow Jesus Christ, not Benjamin Franklin. Tax-exempt status reminds us that our goal is to preach the Gospel, not to involve ourselves in partisan politics. To be sure, there are issues that are important to people of faith. And their faith may motivate them to act. That’s fine; we all have that right as citizens. But to argue that religious freedom is the right to drag temporal, secular, earthly politics into the pulpit angers me, both as a minister and an American.

I call upon fellow Christians to rise up against this Executive Order; make it clear that this is not about religious freedom, this is about the unholy matrimony between Evangelical Christianity and the Republican Party. This is about a vulgar abomination passing itself off as the good news. If this is religion, call me religionless.

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