Questions We Ask Ourselves in a Time of Disruption

On a recent Friday afternoon we received an urgent request; could we sign on to an interfaith coalition to defend the Johnson Amendment?

If you’re scratching your head right now, you’re not alone. The Johnson Amendment is not exactly a household term. Enacted in 1954, and named for its author, then Senator Lyndon Johnson, the amendment bans religious institutions and other tax exempt institutions from participating in political campaigns or supporting candidates for elected office. The amendment enjoyed bipartisan support in a Republican controlled Congress, and was signed into law by President Eisenhower.

Since that time, the firewall between religious institutions and electoral campaigns has been accepted as a norm. Until now. As part of the larger debate about the tax code, and in the aftermath of the President’s campaign pledge supporting repeal, the well-established law is now being challenged like never before.

Whether you oppose or support this change, make no mistake: Johnson repeal will have an important impact on the norms of our nation’s politics, on our institutions and our communities. Repeal would transform the role of faith institutions in partisan politics. It would fundamentally alter the experience people have at services. It would create profound new challenges for clergy and it would turn houses of worship into major political action committees

We were being asked to weigh in on something we hadn’t directly discussed in sixty years, but with resounding consequences for our community today. And, we needed to act by the close of business that day.

Now, we have a process for decisions like these. We consider who the ‘ask’ is coming from. We ask– to the extent possible and relevant – what our member organizations are thinking. We confer with the chair of our policy committee and our board leadership.

Normally, we also check in with our existing coalitions and see what they are prioritizing.

But with the Johnson Amendment, as with an increasing number of issues, there was no existing coalition. Unlike sustained partnerships that we’ve nurtured and invested in over time – on such critical and timely issues as immigration, gun violence prevention, or health care – some of the transformational policy issues we’re now confronting haven’t been on the front-burner in generations.

We haven’t, since the 1960’s, had a President who rejected the norm of disclosing tax returns or providing even a modicum of personal financial transparency. This has an impact on trust in government and leaders. We haven’t (since ever?) had a White House that openly considers a constitutional amendment to weaken free speech protections enshrined in our Bill of Rights. That impacts our political discourse.

Whatever your opinion on these matters – and I should add that we at JCRC have not yet formally weighed in on these last two examples - we are at a disruptive moment as a society. That requires us to engage in disruptive thinking about how and where we engage. And in this context, we’re asking new questions about many issues:

What are we called to do in response to a transformational moment in American life, as the boundaries of what is considered possible and up for debate are shifting every day?

How much should we be limiting ourselves to our established priorities? How much must we challenge ourselves to step beyond our existing coalitions? And how do we take on these new challenges while staying committed to our enduring priorities?

On that Friday afternoon in April, we decided to join our members at the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, Hadassah, the Jewish Federations of North America, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Union for Reform Judaism, as well as our colleagues at the JCRC in Washington, DC and a total of ninety-nine faith institutions opposing repeal of the Johnson Amendment.  And, yesterday, the President signed an executive order that essentially directs the I.R.S. not to enforce this law.

As we weigh in on the myriad new issues popping up weekly if not daily, we’ll continue to chart new territory and we’ll continue to ask key questions.

Where do we want to see our Jewish community taking action in this moment? When do we think that a distinct Jewish voice is needed? Where do we think JCRC, as the representative of the Boston area organized Jewish community, can and should make an impact?

Simply put: What does JCRC’s core commitment - to protecting and strengthening our constitutional democracy and the freedoms that come with it - require of us in this moment?

We look forward to hearing from you as we continue these timely and important conversations.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy