The Johnson Amendment

I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend. ~Thomas Jefferson

With the Trumpster still hammering on about the Johnson Amendment, it might be good to look at this again.

“It’s all good for churches to speak out on politics,” say the secularists, right before smugly adding, “if they want to give up their tax exempt status.” Kind of as a “gotcha!” That the religious tax exempt status somehow goes hand-in-hand with keeping mum on politics is assumed. The history of this is worth examining, however.

The Johnson Amendment, which can be found here, is not so much an amendment as a law. Under it, tax exempt 501c3 organizations are described as one “which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” And, just as “In God We Trust” wasn’t printed on paper money until 1957, the Johnson Amendment has only been with us since 1954. Consequently, the same year that the words “under God” were officially added to the Pledge of Allegiance. When something is older than a large majority, it’s easy to think things have been that way forever. So it’s good to keep such things in perspective.

Senator Lyndon B. Johnson proposed the Johnson Amendment as a political push to silence other particular non-profits speaking out against his re-election. I know, a politician pushing self-serving legislation?? No way!!! Conversely, tax exemption for churches is something that goes back to the founding of the country and beyond. Historically, before 1954 it was in no way tied to what they could or couldn’t say in regards to politics. And, to point it out again, the Johnson Amendment says a candidate can’t be endorsed (or not). Most churches don’t believe they should be endorsing candidates anyway. They can still speak out on policy issues and, given the nature of what religion is, I hardly see how people would expect otherwise.

According to a 2012 NBC article  a Lifeway Research poll, which is part of the Southern Baptist Convention (don’t get much more fundamental than that), 87% of pastors didn’t believe they should endorse candidates from the pulpit. And only 44% had endorsed a candidate, and that was outside of their church role. The poll carried a +/-  3.2 percentage error. Again, if you want religious ideas to go the way of the horse and buggy, let them out into the public square. Religion would like to think of itself as unchanging truth when it comes to its teachings, but that is far from the case. Consider, for example, the historical milestones of women preaching and interracial marriage. All once frowned upon and forbidden and common place today. Religion will come around and adapt as it has always been forced to do, whether that is in regards to accepting powers shrugging it off (see King Henry VIII) or tossing out its musty hymnals to attract a more hip audience (see modern praise & worship). Either that or it will become irrelevant to the day and age.

No doubt there is a wishful desire on the part of some secularists that religious bodies could just be silenced in these regards. As appealing as it may seem to stifle the opposition, that’s not what living in a free, liberty-minded society is about. Many, if not most, secularists are merely nonreligious and content to coexist with a live-and-let-live philosophy. But there is definitely an anti-religious faction out there, the polarized opposition to religious fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalism is not interested in living in a free, liberty-minded society either, consequently. They also want to stifle lifestyle expression that doesn’t fall in line with their holy book and would rather sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist. The rest of us get caught between the extremes.

I don’t care for the suppression of expression. History has shown that fundamentalism, whatever the brand,  thrives under suppression and persecution. And the petulant Left seems to be trying their own play at this here of late. It’s a bad idea no matter what ideology it springs from. The persistent faithful’s (and political dogma can be a sort of faith) attempts to make the rest of a free society fall in line with their particular moral code has led to bitterness and resent in like respect. More and more we are a polarized country when it comes to politics and culture with a middle ground of interlocution melting faster than the polar ice caps. The best way to test ideas is not to shut them down, but to drag them out into the daylight to be examined and debated.

Senator Lyndon B. Johnson proposed this restriction on tax-exempt organizations. His target wasn’t churches, as I believe I heard Trump once suggest, but was a political push driven by the fear of communism to silence a couple of secular non-profits speaking out against his re-election. Churches and other non-profits were just fallout from the bill. While it’s not hard to imagine a politician pushing self-interested legislation, that doesn’t inherently mean the legislation is bad. This was not a new issue when Johnson brought it to the fore, and the law should be judged on merit, not just what Johnson may have hoped to get out of it.
Both more and less seems to be made of the Johnson Amendment than is warranted. Both secularists and religious proponents alike seem to like implying that churches aren’t allowed to speak out on political matters, and that isn’t so. Per the IRS “churches and other 501(c)(3) organizations can engage in a limited amount of lobbying (including ballot measures) and advocate for or against issues that are in the political arena.” Churches are more than welcome to speak out on abortion, taxes, healthcare, or whatever. What they can’t do is directly endorse (or oppose) a particular candidate as previously noted. Given what dirt that often comes out on candidates down the road, I can’t imagine why they would want to, either.
Those pastors intent on opposing the Johnson Amendment have organized Pulpit Freedom Sunday, aimed at directly flying in the face of this law. Their consequences? Nothing. And it is worth noting that the number of churches that have ever lost their tax exempt status under the Johnson Amendment is exactly zero. That makes the net sum effectiveness of the law, at least against churches, zero. And, consequently, the abolition of the law as a boon for churches also zero. At least from a pure endorsement perspective. This isn’t really about freedom of speech. Who cares if Pastor Bob endorses Trump from the pulpit? What it comes down to, as it so often does, is money. Money for candidates, and money for churches.
It should be pointed out that it is possible for tax exempt organizations to endorse candidates if they file as, for instance, a 501c4. Churches and other organizations, including schools and the ASPCA among many, file under 501c3. This allows their donors to take tax deductions for their contributions, whereas this isn’t allowed under a 501c4. If they wanted, churches could create separate sister organizations under the 501c4 and get the political input they crave (and some other charities do exactly this). Of course, then contributions to that tax exempt organization would not be tax-deductible, and churches don’t much like that because it cuts back on the giving. Turns out, people aren’t as eager to donate to Jesus when they can’t deduct it from their taxes. But here’s the deal. You can’t deduct from your taxes monies paid to directly support a political campaign, so why should you be allowed to deduct from your taxes monies paid to indirectly support a political campaign through a 501c3? The answer: you shouldn’t. So, there is a workaround here. Churches just don’t want to utilize it. This is why they make it a freedom of speech issue for themselves instead of a campaign finance reform one. And, of course, if the Johnson Amendment were repealed, it gets repealed for everybody, not just churches, who are as singularly self-focused here as Johnson.
Many secularists would like to see churches lose their tax exempt status as a righteous civic duty that brings them in line with the rest of society. It’s a civic duty that would bring many a ministry to its knees, as most churches are not mega-churches or headed by pretentious people such as Joel Osteen. But the secularists that think this have not thought the issue through. Paying in means you get a say. Paying in means you have more political power than ever. Paying in destroys separation of church and state. It’s a bad, bad idea. This is the reason churches remain tax exempt, and why 501c3 tax exempt organizations are not allowed to support (or oppose) particular candidates–so they, churches or otherwise, don’t become tax loopholes for political activism.
So,  while I’m all for preachers having the freedom to speak their mind from the pulpit, I do agree that, as a campaign finance reform measure, the Johnson Amendment is a good thing. And that, as par for the course, Donald Trump has mischaracterized the issue with overblown rhetoric. Again.