U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) who died on Friday is being rightly hailed as a titan of the civil rights movement. All Americans should mourn the loss of this great man. (You can read a statement from Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser about Lewis’ passing here.)
Americans United appreciated Lewis for many reasons. He stood up for public education and opposed dangerous private school voucher schemes, and he was a champion of LGBTQ rights at a time when many Americans hadn’t yet come around on that issue.
But to Americans United, one of the best things Lewis did was stand up to those who sought to politicize America’s houses of worship. He was a staunch defender of a federal law dating to the 1950s called the Johnson Amendment that bars tax-exempt, non-profit entities from engaging in partisan politics by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.
Repeatedly over the years, Lewis debunked a common Religious Right talking point about church-based partisan politicking: the claim that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. endorsed candidates from the pulpit.
Far-right activists who want to allow partisan politicking in America’s houses of worship have been trying for years to draft King into their cause. They sought to invoke his powerful witness and moral authority, but there was no problem: They were lying. John Lewis knew it – and he called them out for it.
To cite just one example, in 2002, former U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) engineered a vote in the House of Representatives over a legislative monstrosity he euphemistically called the “Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act,” which would have repealed the Johnson Amendment.
During late-night floor debate over the measure on Oct. 1, Jones and his supporters again raised the canard about King endorsing candidates from the pulpit. Lewis would have none of it. He rose to remind House members that he had known King, worked with him and marched with him.
“As someone who stood alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the other great leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, I can tell my colleagues that they would be dismayed by this legislation," Lewis said of the Jones measure. “During the civil rights movement, we fought to end legal segregation and break down barriers to political participation. The church was the heart and soul of our efforts because ministers had the moral authority and respect to stand against immoral and indefensible laws, bad laws, bad customs, bad tradition.”
Lewis added, “Ministers who led the civil rights movement did not select political candidates and operate our churches like political action committees. Although their churches and leaders faced violence and hatred for their efforts to protect human rights and human dignity, they were free and even protected by the Constitution to speak out on these issues. At no time did we envision or even contemplate the need for our houses of worship to become partisan pulpits.”
Jones’ bill never became law, and Lewis continued battling efforts to turn houses of worship into partisan political units long after it died. Every time this issue came up in Congress, Americans United could count on Lewis to set the record straight. He spoke with a powerful authority rooted in his own experiences. Opponents of the Johnson Amendment simply had no answer to that.
And despite what President Donald Trump may claim today, the Johnson Amendment remains the law of the land. That’s the case in no small part due to John Lewis’ voice.
Last year, Lewis remarked, “I have been in some kind of fight – for freedom, equality, basic human rights – for nearly my entire life.”
That fight included ensuring that America’s houses of worship did not become co-opted by those who would convert them into cogs in a partisan political machine. If you want to honor Lewis’ memory, here’s the best way to do it: follow his example.
Photo: U.S. Rep. John Lewis listens to President Barack Obama deliver the State of the Union address in 2013. Photo by Pete Souza.