By now, most of us have read “Dark Money” or heard enough about the subject it explores to recognize that money is suffocating our democracy. Add to this styptic environment a potential new infusion of money, this time through the tax-free political contributions that could flow directly into nonprofit organizations and communities of faith across the country. The alarm bells went off in February at the National Prayer Breakfast when we heard the President promise to “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.” Now, having learned that achieving such promises is “more work than [his] previous life,” the President has turned to the power of the pen. Among many Executive Orders spilling from the White House, comes the order “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” which stops short of destruction but does further nudge federal authorities away from the Johnson Amendment’s enforcement.
At first blush, this may seem like a good idea since many nonprofits are generally recognized along the conservative/liberal spectrum without naming names. But in reality, it’s a very bad idea, especially for communities of faith that might be one of the last places in America where people with diametrically opposing views still gather on a regular basis to focus on something greater than themselves. They focus on the God named by their faith as the creator and sustainer of the world, a God generally recognized as having no political party allegiance. And they focus on each other, showing up during life’s highs and lows to care for one another with food, hugs, and time. I had both Democrats and Republicans bring me food when my children were born, and they all knew for whom I vote.
Now, imagine that our communities of faith are overtly aligned with a particular party or a particular politician. To accomplish this, the party or politician’s supporters offer to buy that new elevator we’ve been working toward. It takes a lot of bake sales to raise elevator money. One good donor can solve that problem in exchange for overt support of that donor’s political priorities. When the party or politician now aligned with this community of faith strays outside the lines of that faith tradition’s claims for God’s justice, the faith leader is rendered mute by the one who has bought the elevator.
Special interests groups of many persuasions could provide their money in exchange for the protection of their interests. And what better protection than to have someone ordained by the faith community for the proclamation of God’s Word, proclaiming that special interest? God’s truth is the plumb line from which the NC Council of Churches takes its cues on how to address the laws and policies that affect God’s people. We’ve been known to criticize equally laws and policies put forward by any party that stray from this path. Our free speech and religious liberty have never been in doubt since faith leaders regularly speak about issues through the lens of their faith. The insinuation that they are not is a smoke screen to distract freely speaking, faithful people from the dark money that lies waiting to ambush democracy. Faith leaders beholden to money will soon find themselves not beholden to the plumb line.