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Trying to erode the separation of church and state

Apr 3, 2017

State Senator Patrick Colbeck of Canton is sometimes referred to as the “most conservative” or “furthest right” member of the legislature.

I’m not sure terms like that have a lot of meaning, except as a substitute for thinking. Essentially, Colbeck is pretty much a Libertarian, except on abortion, which he strongly opposes, and Christianity, which he seems to believe the government is supposed to protect, though the First Amendment to the Constitution says otherwise.

And while most constitutional experts think he is dead wrong, he’s far from alone in that belief. Colbeck recently introduced a bill that would change Michigan election law to allow religious leaders to threaten their followers with “excommunication, dismissal or expulsion,” if they don’t vote the way they are told.

He posted on his website that current Michigan elections law “violates freedom of religion, violates freedom of speech … violates freedom of assembly.”

As of now, there’s no sign his bill is going to get serious consideration. But if it were to pass, it would mean that your local priest could have you excommunicated if you put a bumper sticker for a pro-choice candidate on your car. Or, for that matter, your local imam could throw you out of the mosque if you backed a candidate who wanted peace with Israel.

There’s no indication that religious leaders are pushing for this change. The Detroit Free Press’s Nancy Kaffer interviewed a bunch of them and found none wanted this.

But long-held assumptions about the relationship between church and state are being questioned. President Trump wants to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which, since 1954, has made it illegal for all tax-exempt, non-profit organizations to endorse or oppose political candidates. If repeal were to happen, it could become a mechanism for giving preachers vast power and making political contributions tax-deductible.

Which is really what this is all about: Money. Now, there’s several brands of hypocrisy going on around this issue. First of all, it’s well known that some black pastors commonly tell their flocks how to vote. So do some white fundamentalist ones.

Other religious leaders are more subtle, but make it perfectly clear how they think God expects you to vote. It’s also quite legal for Reverend X to say he supports Candidate Smith, as long as he doesn’t imply he’s speaking for his religious organization.

The faithful, however, may well assume the spirit is moving their pastor. But in fact, a religious leader CAN threaten his or her parishioners with excommunication based on their vote, as long as they do one thing – give up their tax-exempt status.

That’s the heart of the matter. Churches were given tax-exempt status when the federal income tax began a century ago, because they were seen as mostly doing charity work, feeding the poor, et cetera.

But since the 1970s, some religious leaders, such as Pat Robertson, wanted to become political players too. Well, the deal’s always been this: You can’t have your tax deduction, and tell us how to vote. You can have either, but not both.

Frankly, I think any activity which is not purely charitable ought to be taxed, otherwise, I might be tempted to style myself the Opinion Church of Lessenberry.

I may be a hypocrite, but at tax time, that does have a certain appeal.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.