Gene Zubovich charts the strange history of Protestants and American politics.
Last October, “some 1,500 preachers and ministers across the country joined in a nationwide protest they called Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” hoping that this would trigger a court challenge to the Johnson Amendment. The 1954 law was passed with wide support from the mainline church of the day.
When the Johnson Amendment passed in 1954—the amendment that was the target of the recent Pulpit Freedom Sunday—it was in the context of the political mobilization of mainline Protestants, not evangelicals. That same year, “Under God” had been inserted into the pledge of allegiance and two years later “In God We Trust” would become this country’s national motto. Yet Congress concluded that there ought to be limits to church-based political activity. Political mobilization, voter registration, lobbying, and preaching on controversial subjects was fine. Political partisanship, especially the promotion of specific candidates, was not. Mainline leaders were on board with such caution. Even though vigilant denominational lobbyists kept an eye on the legislation, there was little reaction to the amendment at the time, either from politicians or from religious organizations. At a time when denominations did not clearly align with party goals, the desire to keep these groups nonpartisan was widespread.
The prominence of mainline Protestants has dwindled since their heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. Their most important institution—the National Council of Churches—has faced funding problems for decades and has recently relocated from its historic home in Manhattan to a cheaper location in Washington, D.C. Yet their move to D.C. was not just a matter of finances: it was also an affirmation of the importance of politics for the National Council. In fact, the current National Council president, James Winkler, was previously the director of the United Methodists’ lobbying group. With a staff of nearly two dozen, Winkler was in charge of “the implementation of the Church’s Social Principles through Capitol Hill advocacy work,” according to the Methodists’ website. Now Winkler works to translate the moral vision of his ecumenical organization into a political force.
Today, segments on both the left and the right insist that they must fulfill their religiously inspired missions in the realm of politics. No simple call for church-state separation is a plausible solution to the challenges that religious political mobilization creates. To ask Protestants to stop getting involved in politics is to ask them to stop fulfilling what they see as a religious injunction. What must be carefully considered, from the perspective of the religious groups who engage in politics and from the perspective of those who are more generally concerned with the relations between religion and government, is if and how this relationship should be regulated.