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The separation between church and state is one of America's bedrock principles. But there's a movement gaining attention these days arguing that Christianity was America's founding religion and, therefore, should be one that guides our laws. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The First Amendment guarantees religious freedom but also prohibits the establishment of an official religion. Disagreement over how to balance those principles is complicating the tax reform debate. Should churches be free to take political positions without losing their tax exemption? It also comes up in the U.S. Senate race in Alabama. Republican Roy Moore is an unabashed Christian nationalist.
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ROY MOORE: I do believe what the Bible says. And I believe, for our country, it's historically been true.
GJELTEN: Moore speaking at a campaign rally earlier this week.
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MOORE: I have vowed, when I go to Washington, D.C., to take a knowledge of the Constitution and the God upon whom it is founded to that city.
GJELTEN: As an Alabama Judge, Moore installed a Ten Commandments monument in a state building and then defied a court order to remove it. He said the commandments were the moral foundation of U.S. law. People are naturally guided by their religious beliefs in making political judgments. But religion writer Sarah Posner, who's followed Christian nationalists for years, says they take that idea to an extreme.
SARAH POSNER: What they're saying is that, actually, our laws and our regulations should be affirmatively guided by these Christian principles, not just that individuals are guided by these beliefs.
GJELTEN: Whether there should be an explicit Christian direction in the U.S. government is debated by evangelicals - most supported Donald Trump. But Bruce Ashford, a professor of theology and culture at Southeastern Theological Seminary, says evangelicals should move carefully in the political arena.
BRUCE ASHFORD: Churches shouldn't pretend to be public policy think tanks. They shouldn't try to be super PACs, trying to sway elections from the pulpit and that sort of thing. They should preach the gospel.
GJELTEN: The question comes up in the debate over a tax bill. One version would repeal the so-called Johnson Amendment, which says churches engaging in political activity can lose their tax exemption. Evangelical Christian leaders don't like the amendment, nor does Bruce Ashford. He says that while churches should stay in their lane, so should the U.S. Congress.
ASHFORD: The government has limits to its jurisdiction and I don't think has any business regulating what a church says or doesn't say.
GJELTEN: At the forefront of the move to repeal the Johnson Amendment is the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian advocacy group. Senior Counsel Erik Stanley distinguishes the legal and theological questions. First is the right of a church to speak about political issues without fear of government punishment - a right, he says, that's undermined by the Johnson Amendment.
ERIK STANLEY: The theological issue is then, how should the church address those issues from a practical perspective? But that debate about how a church speaks into the political process really resides at the church level.
GJELTEN: Advocates of the Johnson Amendment say its repeal could empower those Christian nationalists who favor a theocratic state. Again, Sarah Posner.
POSNER: Repealing the Johnson Amendment would open up the possibility of them politicizing their faith in new ways, not just rhetorically, but through putting new kinds of money into the political process.
GJELTEN: Candidate's supporters could funnel contributions to churches whose pastors endorse their campaign, potentially reinforcing religion's role in our politics. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
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