If you think America’s churches have a tough row to hoe now, just wait until President Donald Trump “destroys” the Johnson Amendment.
The 1954 law—named for then-Senator Lyndon Johnson—is part of the federal tax code. It prohibits tax-exempt nonprofit organizations—including churches, synagogues and mosques—from endorsing political candidates and “directly or indirectly” participating in their campaigns.
The Johnson Amendment has been the target of politicians and preachers who want to politicize pulpits. They may not own up to that fact, but the truth is they want to leverage the voting mass of congregations to turn elections in their favor. They lust for two particular powers—the ability of the clergy to direct the political clout of the faithful by telling them how to vote, and more insidiously, the ability of kingmakers to funnel cash to political campaigns through church coffers.
On the surface, repealing the Johnson Amendment might sound reasonable. Shouldn’t pastors and other clergy be free to speak their consciences? Shouldn’t they possess the right to preach prophetically on politics?
President Trump played on that theme at the recent National Prayer Breakfast. “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,” he said. “Freedom of religion is a sacred right, but it is under serious threat.”
The president played to his base, but the overall approach is problematic, for several reasons.
First, it’s just not an accurate description of the situation.
Freedom of religion is not threatened by the Johnson Amendment. Churches are free to worship however they please, and preachers are free to pound their pulpits on behalf of whatever politicians they choose.
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But legally—and the law rarely is enforced—they just can’t claim tax-exempt status if they decide they’d prefer to be political. This is part of a longstanding social contract between our society at every level of government and nonprofit organizations, including congregations.
Nonprofits don’t have to pay taxes, but the fire department shows up when their buildings blaze, and police come to provide protection when they need it. In return for government services for which they do not pay—and the rest of society picks up the tab—they have agreed not to engage in politics.
Your preacher can politicize the pulpit as long as you’re willing to forego tax deductions for your tithes and offerings.
Second, and more importantly, the change would be disastrous for church unity and Christian solidarity.
If the law were to change, and pastoral political endorsements became the norm, churches would become political battlegrounds. Although denizens of the extremes always seem surprised to learn this, most congregations are home to participants in both political parties. They stay together through love, focus on ministry and, usually, careful avoidance of inflammatory political speech.
But what if pastors started telling parishioners how they should vote? Churches would split asunder. Prospective members would start asking about party affiliation. We’d have Republican churches and Democratic churches, and denominations would be fractured further.
Ripped to smithereens
Third, the reputation of American religion—tattered already—would be ripped to smithereens.
This would accelerate when churches started funding political campaigns. Because of laws separating church reporting requirements from other political operations, churches would become the ultimate and preferred mechanism for channeling “dark money”—unaccounted sources of revenue—to political campaigns. And when—not if—the government comes in to clean up the mess, houses of worship would be scrutinized as never before.
All that activity would further confuse the relationship between politics and faith. And it would cause dubious outsiders—the very people believers should be trying to reach with the gospel—to question the sincerity of Christians and to chalk church activity, particularly fund-raising, up to greed, power and hypocrisy.
Fourth, destruction of the Johnson Amendment probably wouldn’t result in the intended effect desired by its detractors.
That’s because politics cuts multiple ways. Most of the energy for repealing the amendment comes from conservative evangelical Republicans. But many African-American churches and Jewish synagogues and Muslim mosques can play that game, too. And they tend to vote Democratic.
So much for a conservative financial juggernaut.
Bad for everybody
Fifth, repeal of the Johnson Amendment would be bad for everybody—not just congregations, but the nation as a whole.
“Religion has flourished in the United States as nowhere else in the world precisely because the government has—for the most part, at least—stayed out of the religion business, and vice versa,” Randall Balmer, chairman of the religion department at Dartmouth College, wrote in the Los Angeles Times.
“Despite the religious right’s persistent attempts to circumvent it, the First Amendment is the best friend that religion ever had,” Balmer stressed. “It ensures that there is no established church, no state religion, and that religious groups can compete for adherents on an equal footing. Evangelicals, by the way, have historically fared very well in that free marketplace.”
So, if you think the president’s plan to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment sounds good and big-time preachers’ cries for “religious freedom” sound reasonable, think again. Religious liberty demands thoughtful separation of church and state, not a quickie marriage of politics and pulpits.
Editor’s note: For responses to President Trump’s proposal from the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty and the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, click here.
Follow Marv on Twitter: @marvknox