A year ago this winter, President Trump at the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast repeated his campaign promise to dismantle the Johnson Amendment, the federal law prohibiting nonprofits, including churches from getting involved in partisan electoral politics.
“I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution,” Trump vowed. “I will do that. Remember.”
We should – even though he didn’t mention it at last month’s National Prayer Breakfast.
Trump hasn’t forgotten. During December’s debate over tax reform, he tried to pressure Congress to include the move in the overhaul, but the GOP used a procedural trick limiting the bill to provisions affecting the budget, so the parliamentarian blocked the scheme. Before, on May 4, Trump signed “Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” but it didn’t kill the Johnson Amendment nor open up politicking from the pulpit.
The addition to the tax code – named after then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, D-Texas, who was upset that a tax-exempt organization supported his opponent during an election and introduced the change in 1954 – bars nonprofit organizations from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates. If a tax-exempt organization violates this prohibition, it could lose its tax-exempt status, meaning it would be subject to taxation and donations it receives wouldn’t be tax-deductible. The change (which continued during the Reagan administration when the law was updated in 1986) wasn’t controversial.
After all, contrary to Trump’s claim, religious leaders may, as private citizens, speak freely about politics. They just can’t use the 501 (c)(3) tax-exempt resources of their nonprofits to do it.
Advocating for the repeal (even getting it included in the Republican Party platform), Trump is pandering to a base for which he doesn’t show respect: the “Religious Right.” Embodied in Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. (who came close to violating the law by endorsing Mike Huckabee in 2008), Franklin Graham (the CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic), and Ralph Reed (formerly with the Christian Coalition and now chair of the Faith & Freedom Coalition), this political faction remains powerful despite Roy Moore’s loss in his unsuccessful bid for a Senate seat from Alabama. (Falwell, Graham and Reed all supported Moore even after several women accused him of sexual misconduct.)
Many Evangelical Christians are not right-wingers. The organization Sojourners is a progressive group that stresses Christ’s Sermon on the Mount far more than unmerciful attacks on people – or politicians.
But “Christian Conservatives” seem so frantic to bolster their political muscle that they ignore the fact that churches and other nonprofits can participate in politics by means of non-partisan voter-registration drives, get-out-the-vote efforts and “education” literature short of endorsements or attacks on opposing candidates.
Interestingly, since the Johnson Amendment was enacted, exactly one church has been “punished,” according to research by Father Thomas Reese: the Church at Pierce Creek in Vestal, N.Y. In 1992 it paid for newspaper advertising stating, “Do not put the economy ahead of the Ten Commandments,” asserting that then-Gov. Bill Clinton supported abortion on demand, homosexuality, and the distribution of condoms to teens. The ad quoted select Bible passages and added that “Clinton is promoting policies that are in rebellion to God’s laws.” It concluded, “How then can we vote for Bill Clinton?”
Further, the ad noted that it was “co-sponsored by the Church at Pierce Creek, Daniel J. Little, Senior Pastor, and by churches and concerned Christians nationwide. Tax-deductible donations for this advertisement gladly accepted.”
The Internal Revenue Service noticed and revoked the church’s tax exemption, and the church challenged the IRS in federal court. But the district court and an appeals court said the church’s constitutional rights to free exercise of religion and free speech weren’t violated, ruling, “Plaintiffs were offered a choice: They could engage in partisan political activity and forfeit their Section 501(c)(3) status, or they could refrain from partisan political activity and retain their Section 501(c)(3) status. That choice is unconnected to plaintiffs’ ability to freely exercise their religion.”
Again, however, the law isn’t just about churches. Private universities, charities, hospitals and legal charities ranging from the conservative Koch brothers’ family foundation to progressive George Soros’ foundation could increasingly wield their wealth to influence elections – tax-free.
Critics such as the National Council of Nonprofits, Jewish Federations of North America and Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers) say Trump’s threatened move would just create yet another campaign-finance loophole turning nonprofits into funnels for tax-deductible political donations. It also would increase government examination of church operations. (Currently, churches aren’t mandated to meet reporting requirements other 501(c)(3) groups must.)
“President Donald Trump and his allies in the Religious Right seek to turn America’s houses of worship into miniature Political Action Committees,” commented Barry Lynn, director of Americans United. “It would also lead some houses of worship to focus on supporting candidates in exchange for financial and other aid. That would be a disaster for both churches and politics in America.”
Killing the Johnson Amendment would not only erase the doctrine separating church and state exemplified in the First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” – but would hurt churches and nonprofits alike.
It would divide congregations that come together to worship, not to argue over politicians. It would probably discourage tax-deductible giving to otherwise charitable causes since contributions would instead go to nonprofits active in politics. And it’s unpopular. Most clergy and everyday Americans oppose churches endorsing candidates, according to polls cited by FiveThirtyEight. In fact, two-thirds of Americans are against churches choosing sides in elections, says the Pew Research Center, which last year said, “In 2016, 66 percent expressed opposition to church endorsements of candidates, which is roughly stable with other readings taken over the past eight years.”