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.


31 Questions

Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM) with apologist Matt Slick posted a list of 31 questions for atheists to answer. Many atheists rose to the occasion (or challenge?) and you can find their answers in blogs and YouTube videos around the net. These are wonderful in getting a fuller view of how different atheists think about the issues. However, I consider myself an igtheist or theological noncognivist. Which means, to paraphrase RationalWiki, whereas agnosticism declares “you can’t really know either way,” igtheism states “you haven’t even agreed on what you’re discussing.” The igtheist position is “I have no clear concept of anything labeled ‘God’ nor any reason to suspect that anyone else does either.” But I’m not an apatheist. I find the argument not only interesting, but also socially relevant. While the concept of God may be ambiguous, there are a great many who believe they know exactly what God is and what God wants. On a personal level for people this may be fine, but this often translates into how one perceives and treats others, from chopping hands and heads off to racism to female genital mutilation to saying who can marry whom to what one is allowed to read. I find it hard to be apathetic about these things.

  1. How would you define atheism?

I’m good with Merriam Webster’s definition “a disbelief in deity” or, to rephrase, a lack of belief in god(s). To many atheists/skeptics/freethinkers atheism is a conclusion, not a proposition. Other people may put a different spin on it.

  1. Do you act according to what you believe in (there is no God) or what you don’t believe in (lack of belief in God)?

I act according to my conscience, motivation, and strongest inclination at any given moment (as we all do). After all, not all my inclinations are in agreement with each other. I respond to my environment and how it seems the world operates around me to achieve desired results. My skepticism about the existence of an ill-defined Supreme Being may influence some actions, but no more than the same skepticism regarding other superstitions/mythological beings (ghosts, leprechauns, psychics, and so forth).

  1. Do you think it consistent for someone who “lacks belief” in God to work against God’s existence by attempting to show that God doesn’t exist?

I don’t do this. Nor do most of the skeptical people with which I am familiar, though the confidence  may go higher when presented a case of particular revelatory theism. The burden of proof always lies with the person making the positive claim. Also, is it consistent for a believer to attempt to show that other gods don’t exist? There sure are a lot of Christian apologetics aimed at Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, and so forth. It is not inconsistent to argue against what you think is wrong. What a baffling question.

  1. How sure are you that your atheism properly represents reality?

Theological noncognitivism says nothing about the state of reality, only the state of the discussion regarding god(s). Even within denominations believers don’t agree on what God is or wants. But on a theistic (God giving revelation to particular people/groups) scale I’d say 99.99999%. I have no reason to believe that any of these people who can’t present a coherent definition of God are right.

  1. How sure are you that your atheism is correct?

Isn’t what is correct also what properly represents reality? Unless Mr. Slick means something else by the term “correct,” I understand what’s correct is what also “properly represents reality.”

  1. How would you define what truth is?

If we’re talking about mathematical or scientific truth, it’s what can be reliably proven by experience–or, otherwise, what is correct and  properly presents reality. It’s repeatable (past observations are useful in predicting future results) and falsifiable by what we call the scientific method. One might consider other forms of “truth” that are more subjective–artistic truth, emotional truth, philosophical truth. So I guess it depends on what “truth” we’re talking about.

  1. Why do you believe your atheism is a justifiable position to hold?

Because there is no unambiguous definition of what constitutes God. God is a mental construct and seems best defined as people pretending to know something they can’t possibly know. Therefore it is impossible to determine any position on God’s existence.

  1. Are you a materialist or a physicalist or what?

I suppose I would be inclined towards a physicalist out of the two choices listed, although I am leaning towards a version of neutral monism as an area of current study. What is meant by “physical” is not fully understood and being expanded. Can “thought” be separated from the physical? It seems to at least be dependent on the physical, if not the same thing.

  1. Do you affirm or deny that atheism is a worldview? Why or why not?

As I answered in the first question, to me atheism is a conclusion, and only a conclusion to a single question. That’s not a worldview. However, viewed this way it would be compatible with any number of worldviews from capitalism to communism, from conservatism to progressivism. There are plenty of atheist fiscal conservatives who don’t find a home in the theocratic leanings of the Republican party, which might explain why the majority of Libertarians (according to an informal poll by the Libertarian party) are atheists. This is not to say that atheism isn’t a world view for others claiming the label, but you’d have to get that clarification from them.

  1. Not all atheists are antagonistic to Christianity but for those of you who are, why the antagonism?

This question is painting with a very broad stroke. Not all Christians are created equal here. Are we talking about Westboro Baptist Church, or the person living out their belief in personal privacy? Because I have no problem with the people who want to apply their beliefs to their private lives and find enrichment in magical x. It’s when they start trying to bring everyone else under the heel of their belief that I have problems, such as when creationism is attempted to be passed off as science in schools, or segments of the population are denied privileges (such as the LGBT community for gay marriage) based on unfalsifiable ancient manuscripts. Indeed, Christians in America today seem very enthusiastic about “taking America back for God” and putting everyone under what they believe those rules to be. The only person a True Believer can really put under their conception of God’s thumb is themselves. Stick to that and we’re golden.

  1. If you were at one time a believer in the Christian God, what caused you to deny his existence?

Reason and better arguments, although at this point I don’t deny that existence per se. Many Christians think that something “bad” must have happened for us atheists who turned away, and that may be true in some cases. But not for me. I enjoyed my faith and theology and the fellowship of believers. There were a couple of factors that propelled me to maintain that faith for longer than I might have. At the end of the day, it wasn’t any atheist that swayed me away, but Christianity itself. Just look at all the denominations, the varying interpretations, but how everyone believes they have the “right” version. That’s a bit of a simplification of my reasons, but it’s a start. That everybody was pretending to know things they  really didn’t, and I was too, and that there is nothing reliable about faith to reach correct conclusions. Now I’ve reached a point that, given that there is no unambiguous concept of what constitutes “god,” I don’t deny that existence; I don’t understand what is even meant by it, and I don’t think believers making the argument really do either.

  1. Do you believe the world would be better off without religion?

Generally speaking I think religious/superstitious belief has done more harm than good throughout history. But, given that I see religion as a human construct, that’s not to say it couldn’t be replaced by some other damaging construct. I believe we are fully capable of wrecking the ship of humanity without the iceberg of religion. However, I believe it is always better to believe in things that can be shown correct and accord with reality than not. If one has a belief that lacks evidence yet will not change or, worse, is contradictory to evidence, that is an unreasonable position. I think we’re better off without unreasonable positions. Also, for the good that religion does do, I find it easier to replace those motivations with justifiable secular humanist reasons than for finding justifiable reasons for, saying, bombing a building absent the idea of god. Of course this would not eliminate the problem. I’m only saying that, bereft of God, it’s easier to find other reasons to “feed the hungry” than it is to “kill the infidel.” Because, bereft of God, there are no infidels.

  1. Do you believe the world would be better off without Christianity?

I don’t see much difference here from the last question. Even were Christianity to be removed, that leaves a host of other religious rigmarole.

  1. Do you believe that faith in a God or gods is a mental disorder?

No. People are indoctrinated into faith, it is not congenital. However, persistent belief in something without evidence, or contrary to evidence, can be considered delusional behavior.

  1. Must God be known through the scientific method?

I don’t know of any other reliable method to know things exterior to ourselves.

  1. If yes, how do you avoid a category mistake by requiring material evidence for an immaterial God?

I don’t know what “immaterial” is or how it can be known (much less it have consciousness). Regardless, the God of the Levantine religions regularly is said to interact with the material world, so material evidence shouldn’t be an issue in these regards.

  1. Do we have any purpose as human beings?

Not any inherent purpose, but we can give ourselves purpose.

  1. If we do have a purpose, can you as an atheist please explain how that purpose is determined?

People determine what their purpose is. Seriously, this is elementary stuff. But I understand how believers go astray here, because they believe that we must have an ultimate purpose (and have the hubris to say they know what that is). For them, otherwise, life must be meaningless. This is a non sequitur.

  1. Where does morality come from?

People. This is also self-evident.

  1. Are there moral absolutes?

Not that I’m absolutely certain about. I’m open to examples.

  1. If there are moral absolutes, could you list a few of them?

Most any moral, even those that find broad acceptance across multiple cultures (i.e., murder is wrong), falls on some scale with varying shades of grey. Generally I accept the axiom that what is moral is what promotes happiness, well-being, health and/or minimizes unnecessary suffering/harm.

  1. Do you believe there is such a thing as evil? If so, what is it?

Are we talking evil with a capital “E” embodied in some nebulous force or entity? Then no. Otherwise evil is a moral construct created by people.

  1. If you believe that the God of the Old Testament is morally bad, by what standard do you judge that he is bad?

My conscience.

  1. What would it take for you to believe in God?

For starters, a meaningful, understandable definition of what God is. Second, sufficient evidence for which the simplest falsifiable explanation is God. As an aside, if I am to accept the Christian god that is toted about as all-knowing and long-suffering so that none may perish, then that God knows what it would take for me to believe, and that hasn’t happened. Instead of behaving like my own parents, or so many other parents I know, who have done to the best of their abilities to guide their children out of love, this absent parent requires faith. And if you just can’t buy into that, well, it’s eternal torment for you. This doesn’t strike me as the best effort one might make to save the creation they supposedly love so much. It’s absurd. I can’t think of any other instance where faith of this sort would be considered a virtue. As Christopher Hitchens said, that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

  1. What would constitute sufficient evidence for God’s existence?

Evidence is sufficient if it’s empirically demonstrable and best explained by the hypothesis that God exists.

  1. Must this evidence be rationally based, archeological, testable in a lab, etc. or what?

I don’t know what “rationally based” evidence is. Evidence is empirically based. But, ideally, yes, something along these lines. If it’s not verifiable, it’s not evidence.

  1. Do you think that a society that is run by Christians or atheists would be safer? Why?

Safer for who? At the end of the day, both groups are far too diverse to say that either  would be inherently safer–whatever is meant by that. The society I prefer is one that cherishes liberty, compassion, and evidential  empirical truths. If that society also happens to be one filled with people who believe in a mythical sky god but mind their own business, we’re copacetic.

  1. Do you believe in free will? (Free will being the ability to make choices without coercion.)

Is living under the threat of eternal damnation for making the wrong choice not coercion?? It does seem that most of us have some degree of free will, or at least the illusion, coerced or not. Others, such as the severely mentally ill, may have less so. So biology seems to play its role as well. It’s an interesting area of study, to be sure. But I don’t believe we can dismiss biology as playing a part in determining our behavior.

  1. If you believe in free will, do you see any problem with defending the idea that the  physical brain, which is limited and subject to the neuro-chemical laws of the brain, can still produce free will choices?

As I see it? Maybe. The science is still out on the free will issue. Maybe yes, maybe no, maybe there is some mixture there depending on how we define our terms. However, granted that the brain is “limited and subject to neuro-chemical laws,” this violates the previous definition of free will given here as “the ability to make choices without coercion”–if brain chemistry influences us, that is a form of coercion, and then it can’t be said that true free will exists. But that’s only one definition of free will.

  1. If you affirm evolution and that the universe will continue to expand forever, then do you think it is probable that given enough time, brains would evolve to the point of exceeding mere physical limitations and become free of the physical and temporal, and thereby become “deity” and not be restricted by space and time? If not, why not?

WTH? I might take this as the basis for some fantasy novel. But, yes, I affirm evolution. I don’t know if the universe will expand forever. And I have no freakin’ clue what is meant by “exceeding mere physical limitations.” If you’re going to use such an expression, you better be able to give a coherent definition of what it means.This is just…bizarre.

  1. If you answered the previous question in the affirmative, then aren’t you saying that it is probable that some sort of God exists?

See, the trick here is setting people up to most likely answer the previous question “yes.” So, no.