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The ’Splainer: What is the Johnson Amendment and why did Trump target it?

(RNS) Many religious leaders were eager to see this 1954 law weakened. Others wanted to see it preserved.

President Trump prepares to sign the Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty during the National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House on May 4, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Carlos Barria

(RNS) The ’Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which the RNS staff gives you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at the water cooler.

President Trump has signed an executive order gutting enforcement of a law known as the Johnson Amendment. In his remarks before the signing Thursday (May 4), the president said: “Under my administration, free speech does not end at the steps of a cathedral or a synagogue or any other house of worship. … We are giving our churches their voices back.”

What is the Johnson Amendment and why were many religious leaders eager to see it scrapped — while many others wanted it preserved?

What is the Johnson Amendment?

The Johnson Amendment is a 1954 law signed by then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower and named for then-Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was not interested in religious organizations when he proposed — and pushed through in typical Johnson heavy-handed fashion — the amendment, but he was hoping to silence two nonprofit groups campaigning against him as ”a closet Communist.”

The Johnson Amendment prohibits registered 501(c)(3) organizations — which include some religious congregations but also other nonprofits — from endorsing political candidates and participating in political campaigns, at the risk of losing their nonprofit status.

Thursday’s executive order doesn’t repeal the Johnson Amendment — which is what candidate Trump promised numerous times and President Trump promised to do as recently as the Feb. 2 National Prayer Breakfast. Only Congress can do that. But it advises the IRS not to enforce it.

Did the amendment work?

It depends on whom you ask. The IRS investigated Johnson Amendment cases only a handful of times, including once against a New York church that purchased newspaper ads opposing the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 and once against a California church where a pastor preached an anti-war sermon in 2004 that specifically called out presidential candidates. Both incidents occurred just before presidential elections.

But many critics of the Johnson Amendment say the law’s true power is as a deterrent. It works like a gag rule, they say, preventing clergy from exercising their full freedom of expression by tacitly threatening them and their organizations with loss of their tax-exempt status. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a Christian organization that heralded Thursday’s executive order, called the Johnson Amendment “overly broad” and said it had been used to censor speech.

READ: Religious liberty executive order draws mixed reviews

But plenty of other people are unhappy with Trump’s executive order, including many religious leaders and free speech advocates. Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, warns politicking from the pulpit may come at the cost of a church’s “prophetic witness — its ability to speak truth to power and not risk being co-opted by the government.”

Alan Brownstein, a law professor at the University of California, Davis, boiled it down to this in The Atlantic magazine last year: “Pastors can say whatever they want, as can anyone else. The question is whether a tax-exempt institution can say whatever it wants and retain its tax-exempt status, and whether the pastor as an official can use his or her position in the tax-exempt institution to engage in electioneering.”

If the amendment is rarely enforced, why is the executive order a big deal?

As historian Kevin Baker said in The New York Times, candidate Trump’s promise to scrap the amendment was one of the main reasons evangelicals and other religious conservatives voted for him, “the most openly irreligious major-party presidential candidate in our history.”

“Jerry Falwell Jr. provided the answer in his singularly graceless speech at the Republican National Convention,” Baker writes, and then quotes Falwell:

“Mr. Trump has added a plank to this party’s platform to repeal I.R.S. rules sponsored by Lyndon Johnson in 1954 barring churches and nonprofits from expressing political free speech. … Trust me, the repeal of the Johnson Amendment will create a huge revolution for conservative Christians and for free speech.”

Where do Americans stand on the issue?

The public has shown little enthusiasm for politics in the pulpit. A 2016 LifeWay poll found that only 19 percent of Americans agree with the statement “it is appropriate for pastors to publicly endorse political candidates during a church service,” and a 2013 Pew Research Center survey that found two-thirds of Americans think clergy should not endorse political candidates.

READ: Most churchgoers are hearing politics from the pulpit: Report


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