There was nothing new about the Rev. Jerry Johnson talking about abortion, gay rights and other hot-button moral issues during sermons at the Central Baptist Church of Aurora, outside Denver.
But on this particular Sunday in the mid-1990s, Johnson mentioned President Bill Clinton, noting his liberal take on several issues. Later, several laypeople told him he had risked the church's tax-exempt status -- by mentioning the president's name in the pulpit. Americans United for Separation of Church and State had just begun circulating letters warning religious leaders against endorsing or opposing candidates.
Two decades later, Johnson leads the National Religious Broadcasters and he still thinks preachers should have the right to say whatever they want about faith and politics, even if that includes letting believers know what they think of candidates. Whether pulpit endorsements are wise or necessary is another matter, he said.
"Speech is speech and free speech is free speech," said Johnson. "The question isn't whether it's wise or not for church leaders to endorse candidates, the question is who gets to make that decision. If the answer is the government, then that's the old Soviet answer, that's the answer you get in China. If the church gets to make that decision, then there's your First Amendment answer, right there."
Thus, Johnson was among those celebrating President Donald Trump's executive order telling Internal Revenue Service officials not to "take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization" that endorses candidates. Those actions were banned in the mid-1950s by the rarely enforced Johnson Amendment, engineered by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, who wanted to corral his opponents in secular and religious nonprofit groups.
Yes, an executive order is not the same thing as Congress overturning the Johnson Amendment, said Johnson. The NRB leader also knows that Trump didn't really address the rising tide of First Amendment clashes between religious believers -- such as wedding photographers, cake bakers and florists -- and discrimination claims by LGBTQ activists.
Trump's action "wasn't enough," said Johnson, "but it was something. It was a first step in the right direction."
On the other side, American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony D. Romero concluded that, since Trump left the legal "status quo" unchanged, there was no need to file a lawsuit against anything, at this time.
The Rose Garden signing ceremony was "an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome," claimed Romero. Thus, "what Trump did … was merely provide a faux sop to religious conservatives."
Some conservatives reached similar conclusions and said so, either quietly or in social media.
Robert P. George of Princeton University -- a vocal Catholic and professor of jurisprudence -- was blunt on Twitter: "The Religious Liberty Executive Order Is Meaningless. No Substantive Protections For Conscience. A Betrayal. Ivanka And Jared Won. We Lost." His reference to Trump's daughter, and son-in-law Jared Kushner, followed news reports that they worked inside the White House to protect LGBTQ causes.
Adding to this drama, a LifeWay Research survey found that 79 percent of Americans polled disagreed with this statement: "It is appropriate for pastors to publicly endorse political candidates during a church service." However, only 42 percent said churches that endorse candidates should lose their tax-exempt status.
Lots of people remain confused about what religious groups can and cannot do in the political arena, which made Trump's decision to attack the Johnson Amendment a highly symbolic move for leaders on left and right, said Stanley Carlson-Thies, leader of Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance.
"Some church leaders have been afraid that they would be attacked, even if all they did was speak out on a controversial public issue and what they said happened to align with the views of a particular party or candidate," he said, in a telephone interview.
Meanwhile, efforts to defend the Johnson Amendment, as well as those to kill it, have led to complicated legal arguments that have left many people in pulpits and pews feeling intimidated.
"All of this has sent a chill through pastors who aren't sure what they can say or what they can't say," said Carlson-Thies. "There has also been a sense of mystery about all of this because the Johnson Amendment has rarely been enforced. … People haven't been sure where the lines are in all of this."