Church leaders blurring line between religion, politics – Chicago Tribune

An enthusiastic crowd of about 150 people gathered Wednesday at Living Stones Church in Crown Point to receive the message that Christians and the church need to claim their rightful place in the political realm.

Too long have pastors kept themselves out of political speech adhering to an ill-conceived notion of the separation of church and state, panelists said. The time has come to return the nation to its founding Judeo-Christian values by furthering Christianity.

“Our job is to take it back into our schools, into our communities, our government, into public squares,” Micah Beckwith said. Beckwith is the pastor of the Life Church Noblesville campus. He ran an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2020.

He said the Christian right wants a constitutional republic based on biblical values and needs to fight for it.

The intersection of politics and religion isn’t new, said Marie Eisenstein, associate professor of political science at Indiana University-Northwest, but is sometimes more prominent than at other times.

“It ebbs and flows but it’s always been there,” she said.

The topic, she added, is both nuanced and complicated, because the freedom to exercise religion is not just the right to worship as one pleases “but being able to manifest your faith in every dimension of your life.”

An increasing number of religious leaders are telling congregants to make their voices heard and vote on their values, she said, yet under the Johnson Amendment, churches and other nonprofit organizations can’t openly campaign for a candidate because they risk the loss of their tax-exempt status from the IRS.

“It’s really a sticky issue. Where is that line?” Eisenstein said.

Beckwith was one of four panelists for the God > Gov forum at Living Stones. Living Stones is described on its website as a “spiritual greenhouse where people are loved, encouraged and equipped to grow into all that Christ has called them to be.”

The panel was led by the Rev. Ron Johnson from Living Stones, who has advocated against LGBTQ+ rights in the Indiana General Assembly, and included Beckwith, former Indiana State Rep. Christy Stutzman and the Rev. Rob McCoy, of Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Newbury Park, California, and TPUSA Faith’s co-chair.

A crowd of about 150 people applauded speakers at a recent God > Gov forum at Living Stones Church in Crown Point.

Turning Point USA is a conservative political organization founded by Charlie Kirk, who has denied that former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election and sent buses to a rally headlined by Trump on Jan. 6, 2021 that preceded the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Its events have featured such speakers U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Fox News host Tucker Carlson. McCoy has served on the Thousand Oaks, California, city council and as the city’s mayor.

“Pastors that do what we are doing tonight are like dinosaurs,” Johnson said.

Speakers framed the charge as a biblical battle for right and wrong, with a radical left wing that must be defeated at all costs — a charge that is playing out in churches across the country as more and more pastors take political positions from the pulpit in violation of the Johnson Amendment.

Panelists encouraged involvement in all levels of the political process, stopping short of endorsing particular candidates. They say churches can no longer stay out of politics and welcomed investigations by the IRS.

“All important crucial issues of our culture are now being labeled political,” Beckwith said. Issues of marriage, abortion, sexuality and taxes have become political.

The interplay between religion and politics has been part of the nation’s body politic for centuries but the rhetoric has become more prevalent in the last six years, since the election of former President Donald Trump, said Andrew Whitehead, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis who has written extensively on Christian nationalism.

Religious leaders on the right are “really leaning into that rhetoric,” Whitehead said, and it’s not focused on the Christian concept of piety but on Christian privilege in policy and social identity.

In practicality, that plays out when voters think they have to vote a certain way to be good Christians, Whitehead said, adding it has less to do with whether a candidate is a good representative of someone’s faith and more to do with what policies the candidate might put into place.

There are gradations in the ways religious leaders show their support for a politician, Whitehead said, adding a pastor might not endorse a candidate outright but will outline where they stand on an issue.

“More and more pastors and clergy on the right are willing to say ‘if you vote Democrat, you’re not a Christian’,” he said, adding that more and more Americans are sorting into different houses of worship depending on their political beliefs, making them echo chambers of people with the same views.

The discussion Wednesday at Living Stones Church skirted the corners of the federal law, which puts the tax exempt status of churches that take political positions at risk through the IRS.

According to the Johnson Amendment, enacted in 1954 and named for then-U. S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, churches are allowed to hold candidate forums and political discussions but are not allowed to endorse specific candidates during church functions. Pastors can endorse candidates outside of the church and not violate the law.

Beckwith, with Life Church Noblesville, said he would be happy to fight the issue of the church’s participation in politics to the U.S. Supreme Court, which drew applause from the crowd.

Eisenstein and Whitehead said the IRS has revoked a church’s nonprofit status only once.

The case, which started in 1992 but wasn’t resolved until eight years later, involved a church that took out an ad in two national newspapers denouncing Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas and Democratic candidate for president.

The ad, according to court documents from the case, said Clinton was “promoting policies that are in rebellion to God’s laws” and asked for tax deductible donations to help pay for the ad.

Local pastors said they find different ways to minister to their congregations and motivate them toward civic engagement in their communities without breaching the Johnson Amendment.

In Valparaiso, the Rev. Timothy Leitzke has been at Trinity Lutheran Church for seven years. In that time, he’s participated in rallies for reproductive rights; in favor of face masks in the Valparaiso schools during the pandemic; against deportations at the Gary/Chicago International Airport; and as a counter demonstrator last month when people showed up to protest a drag show at the Memorial Opera House, among other events.

The Rev. Timothy Leitzke, a father of two Valparaiso students, holds a pro-mask sign outside of a meeting of the Valparaiso Community School Board on Thursday, August 26, 2021 at the school administration building. (Michael Gard for the Post-Tribune)

There’s a “nice, comfortable place” where pastors can complain without doing anything, Leitzke said, but he’s bothered by that approach.

Advocacy, Leitzke said, is his job as a member of the clergy and he’s not comfortable sitting on the sidelines. His church has hosted a postcard writing session to legislators about the ban on trans student athletes and a meeting with Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, to meet members of the trans community. Charbonneau, Leitzke said, has become a reliable vote for trans rights.

He turned down an offer to host an election event for Democrat Joe Donnelly when he was running for U.S. Senate.

“In my opinion, that clearly crosses a federal line,” Leitzke said.

Crossing that line, he added, also risks crossing a theological line of condemning people for how they vote.

“It’s one thing to advocate for policies that embody what God wants for people,” he said. “It’s another to decide what’s right for everyone.”

The Rev. Mark Wilkens of First United Methodist Church in Crown Point, said it is easy to avoid running afoul of the Johnson Amendment.

“I leave politics out of it. We are pitching a great big tent here,” Wilkens said. The challenge is pitching a tent where an ardent Donald Trump, MAGA Republican and a progressive liberal can both feel safe and find some common ground.

Wilkins said as a pastor he focuses on the things he can do to bring people together and focus on the community such as feeding hungry children, assisting teen mothers, and supporting veterans and first responders. No matter where you are on the political spectrum, the issues are something of concern to everyone, he said.

“There is enough stuff we can be talking about that we can still agree on. You want to argue the 2nd Amendment, argue all you want. Go ahead, have fun. Over here we are feeding hungry kids,” Wilkens said.

Back at Living Stones, Drew Becker of LaPorte was glad to discuss his views, while other attendees declined to be identified or interviewed. As a self-described true believer in Jesus Christ, he welcomed the message Wednesday from the stage.

“I believe every human being in this country has the protection of the First Amendment. So long as you are not screaming fire in a theater, your opinion is your opinion. You should be able to voice it anywhere,” Becker said.

Johnson’s strong message from the pulpit is why the church has grown to about 2,000 members every Sunday and counting, Becker said.

“If you don’t like what Pastor Ron is saying, you can leave,” Becker said.

cnapoleon@chicagotribune.com

alavalley@chicagotribune.com

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