President Trump promotes Adventism and church/state separation
President Donald J. Trump took the White House by surprise, and everything he has done since to make good on his campaign promises has contained elements of surprise. Not the least of this is his unexpected advancement of the mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
For the first time in history, a Seventh-day Adventist holds a cabinet-level position. President Trump nominated Dr. Ben Carson to serve as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the Senate confirmed his nomination. Not that long ago, President Trump was unfamiliar with Seventh-day Adventists. Now, he has selected a hero of the Adventist Church to direct the policy and programs of the United States which work to improve and bring fairness to the housing and community needs of our nation’s poorest citizens. Not only does the President and an increasing number of citizens now know who we are, a Seventh-day Adventist is leading the efforts of our nation to aid those in need!
One of the main concerns of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is promoting diet, health and fitness in our nation. We maintain that there is a vital link between physical health, and mental and spiritual health. President Trump has triggered an unprecedented nation-wide exercise program. Hundreds of thousands of Americans who were previously drinking beer and eating Cheetos while sitting down watching CNN, are now walking and running through our streets while waving their arms about. Only time will tell whether this burst of exercise improves their mental and spiritual health.
Perhaps most important to the mission of the Church, is that Seventh-day Adventists fear a day will come when the government tells us what to think and what to do when it comes to our faith. Under the previous administration, the church was told to submit to governmental views on abortion, homosexuality and other claimed rights. Indeed, President Obama’s Department of Justice argued to the U.S. Supreme Court there should be no “special solicitude to the rights of religious organizations” under the First Amendment! Instead, it argued that the church should have no greater rights than “a labor union, or a social club.” Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Luther Church and School v. EEOC, 132 U.S. 694, 706 (2012). This would, as a practical matter, largely strip out of the First Amendment our first freedoms, the right to freely exercise our faith and to prevent an establishment of religion. Thankfully, the Supreme Court would have none of it. “We cannot accept the remarkable view that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.” Id.
To continue the roll-back of attacks on religious freedom, specifically on the right of a church to conduct its own affairs, President Trump recently announced at the National Prayer Breakfast that he intends to repeal the Johnson Amendment. This amendment, a provision of the tax code, is argued to allow the government to regulate church speech.
A Parade of Horribles
A true believer in religious liberty and the separation of church and state knows that the church should not be able to force the speech of the state, and the state should not be able to force the speech of the church. How odd, then, it is to hear those within the Seventh-day Adventist Church who claim to support church state separation defending the Johnson Amendment.
The Johnson Amendment allows the state to impose draconian financial penalties on any speech of the church it deems too political. The IRS is the arm of the state charged with this bureaucratic regulation of church speech. If you have been living in a cave the last couple of years, or been trying to promote your peace and joy by avoiding the media, you have you might have missed the fact that the IRS has actively censored conservative political groups. Those with a longer memory will recall that during the President Nixon years liberal speech--meaning those who disagreed with the President--was targeted.
Those who truly believe in religious freedom and the separation of church and state understand that church members are the ones who should decide what the message of their church is on politicized issues such as abortion and homosexual marriage. That decision should not be made by the IRS or any other arm of the state.
There is nothing new about the debate over the Johnson Amendment. Modern “liberals” believe that the state knows best what is good for the individual citizen. Conservatives and Libertarians believe the individual should have the right to decide what is in his best interest. The Johnson Amendment was not originally intended to cover churches, but its defenders today want to retain it as a tool to repress church political speech. If you have recently read a parade of horribles that will result from the repeal of the application of the Johnson Amendment to churches, close examination reveals that parade is nothing more than a statement that the state, not the church, knows best. Right-thinking Christians know that church members, not the IRS, should be in charge of the voice of the church. That is what separation of church and state means.
President Trump has at least four--and possibly eight--more years to hopefully be a blessing to the mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Let’s tighten our seat belts and see what surprise happens next! Marching is certainly enjoying a startling renaissance.
Bruce N. Cameron is the Reed Larson Professor of Labor Law at Regent University School of Law. He is also on staff with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation where he is the Director of its Freedom of Conscience Project. Professor Cameron has spent more than forty years litigating cases defending religious and political freedom for employees. He also writes a weekly Bible study: www.GoBible.org.