Opinion

Why the Johnson Amendment is always debated and never repealed

President Trump shakes hands after a signing ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House on Dec. 21, 2018, in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

(RNS) — As the 115th Congress winds down amid chaos in Washington, one unsettled debate concerns a long-uncontroversial line added to Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code in 1954 barring nonprofit entities, including houses of worship, from endorsing candidates for office.

Republican-aligned elites in and out of government are once again having a field day raising money and rallying their troops against a legislative solution that has worked extremely well for more than six decades.

It’s time to stop the insanity and start focusing on real problems.

The Johnson Amendment, named for the Texas senator who later became the 36th president, was considered settled law for more than 60 years. It held together a broad social consensus against electioneering in churches. Secularists and lay believers alike agreed that nonprofits should not be taxed — but that if they wanted to engage in partisan politics, they should pay into the system like the rest of us.

For their part, two generations of clergy have been almost unanimously pleased with the provision. It provides them with a popular and respected mandate to focus on their mission rather than cater to donors’ partisan political demands. As institutional religion declined in American society, the ban on pulpit endorsements has actually helped clergy retain some of their legitimacy and moral authority.

Preachers know that, though their personal political zeal often threatens to carry them across the line from exhorting on moral issues to endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit, it’s not taken well in the pews.

And for preachers whose congregations do want them to use their pulpits that way, they are free to do so in almost every case, as the law is almost never enforced.

President Trump signs an executive order in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., on May 4, 2017, asking the IRS to use “maximum enforcement discretion” over the regulation known as the Johnson Amendment, which applies to nonprofits and places of worship. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The Rev. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, wrote last year that pastors know their parishioners have diverse political views. “They are grateful for rules that keep them out of political endorsement differences and battles,” he said.

The Catholic Church, which does not permit church funds to be spent on behalf of parties or candidates, also does not allow political endorsements during homilies for reasons of theological and pastoral integrity, regardless of their legal permissibility.

But for many conservative evangelical organizations, there is a “legality-morality gap” at play — they don’t want to talk politics in church, but they don’t want the government telling them they can’t. As a result, even before Trump captured the issue for his personal benefit, a few conservative groups, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Southern Baptist Convention, began opposing any imposition on churches’ political endorsements.

But enabling pulpit electioneering didn’t become a Republican priority until Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign — and then only sort of.

No clergy outside the Republican interest-group universe were clamoring for repeal, but Trump nonetheless made it a signature item on his religious-liberty policy agenda. Amid Trump’s and conservative evangelicals’ mutual manipulation after his election, the Johnson Amendment became an issue again.

Trump-loving and Trump-skeptical evangelicals soon ramped up their advocacy for repeal of the Johnson Amendment, even if they seldom emphasized it before Trump crashed the party. They couldn’t risk appearing insufficiently loyal by the standards of their Trump-adoring constituencies.

President Trump said he would destroy the Johnson Amendment during remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 2, 2017. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Let’s be clear: Trump is never going to succeed at politicizing the nonprofit sector in the way he so self-servingly and destructively seeks. Responsible actors, including the IRS, seek no change because the current law works in the best interests of nonprofits, the government and society at large.

But since we now have this debate every time Congress has to pass a tax bill, let’s at least be honest about what is really at stake here.

If, hypothetically, Congress ever does repeal the Johnson Amendment, a lot could go wrong, and probably would. Democrat-aligned groups would demand that bureaucrats censor sermons. Republican advocates would have to answer for why they cheered as churches devolved into Super PACs.

As Maggie Garrett, vice president for public policy at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, recently told me, “Changing the law would allow endorsement activity to permeate throughout tax-exempt organizations, transforming them from charitable organizations to tax-exempt partisan campaign organizations.”

The question is, in short: How much more damaging and obnoxious do we want politicized religion to become in this country?

We already live in a world in which Trump’s most eager evangelical lap dog, Southern Baptist megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, hosts the Fox News All-America Christmas Special from his church. This event gives us the obscene spectacle of Trump disciple and hack journalist Todd Starnes standing in the pulpit where Baptist legends like George W. Truett and W.A. Criswell once preached.

The Johnson Amendment works great, protecting us from our worst instincts in religion and politics, and saving us from ourselves. Well, most of us.

(Jacob Lupfer, a frequent commentator on religion and politics, is a writer and consultant in Baltimore. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

About the author

Jacob Lupfer

A contributing editor at RNS, Jacob Lupfer is a writer and consultant in Baltimore. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.

24 Comments

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  • “For their part, two generations of clergy have been almost unanimously pleased with the provision. It provides them with a popular and respected mandate to focus on their mission rather than cater to donors’ partisan political demands.”

    Has Lupfer actually read the prophets of the Old Testament? “Intensely political” is NOT hyperbole. The Johnson Amendment has NOT “worked great.” It has, in fact, been blatantly ignored by the Left and blatantly challenged by the Right, and the federal government has turned a blind eye to both. The current levels of religious involvement in politics have nothing to do with the Johnson Amendment.

  • “As Maggie Garrett, vice president for public policy at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, recently told me, “‘Changing the law would allow endorsement activity to permeate throughout tax-exempt organizations, transforming them from charitable organizations to tax-exempt partisan campaign organizations.’”

    Apparently Maggie Garrett knows even less than Jacob Lupfer.

    The reason why the Johnson Amendment is not repealed is that doing so would accomplish nothing. The Amendment is not enforced because most legal scholars believe it would not withstand a constitutional challenge as a direct violation of the First Amendment.

    The Democrats love to speak to black congregations, who love to hand out sample ballots and bus folks to the polls.

    The Republicans like to show up at religious conventions and act as though they’re one with Middle American religious values.

    Americans United (for the Separation of Church and State) loves to have its spokespersons make nonsensical statements like that quoted.

    The Johnson Amendment deals ostensibly only with religious organizations. Only religious organizations could mount a constitutional challenge to it.

    Therefore the notion that its demise would “allow endorsement activity to permeate throughout tax-exempt organizations” is just silliness.

  • Re: “The Johnson Amendment works great, protecting us from our worst instincts in religion and politics, and saving us from ourselves.” 

    It doesn’t “work” at all! For all intents and purposes, it’s unenforced. That’s why no one in Washington wants to do anything about it … there’s no need. It’s on the books, so it appears to have the force of law; but the IRS almost never goes after any church or ministry that violates it, so it might as well not exist. Given this, why pass any legislation to change or repeal it? 

  • I never understood how anyone could seriously think this amendment was even constitutional. While I understand some people’s support for it, it violates freedom of speech and religion. In the long run, it may be wise for religious organizations to steer clear of most political issues. However they still have the right to jump in with their ideas.

  • Don’t understate the influence of the Catholic Church. They do use funds to endorse one party’s candidates with voting guides and sermons that tell people year after year that there are two — and only two — nonnegotiable issues — abortion and denying same sex couples the right to marry. Not gun control, not climate, not criminal justice, not health care, not refugees or immigrants or education or clean air and water or living wages or farm survival or the economy or corporate profiteering. The entire rest of the world can go to hell in a hand basket, it would seem, just so long as you vote republican. We can’t tell you who to vote for, they claim, but one of these candidates supports our position on these two absolutely nonnegotiable issues, and the other one doesn’t.

    And In case that is too subtle for some, supplement those general instructions with a few clergy in the press saying that anyone who doesn’t vote republican is putting their salvation in jeopardy, and you have all the partisan arm twisting you need. The message and partisanship are loud and clear.

    Yes. This does happen. And it is why many of us are no longer catholic.

  • the only interest is along the line of is this person for real ? your answer is of course not . troll .

  • we can talk all the politics in church all we want. we simply cannot endorse a candidate from the pulpit. In fact, I have addressed gun violence from the pulpit and we became an open and affirming congregation. We speak out against our Nation’s immigration policy and policy brutality and the need for universal health care, and so forth. What some people call politics, we call God’s justice.

    and I highly doubt it’ll *ever* be a Democrat wanting to censor a sermon of mine. It’ll be an Evangelical Christian telling me I can’t speak out for the rights of LGBTQ people, or for women’s reproductive rights.

  • it’s really an easy topic to avoid. just don’t name the candidates by name. it’s that simple. a congregation can affirm that abortion is fundamentally and morally wrong….and that any member who supports such a practice is in danger of excommunication. and that includes a vote for a pro abortion political candidate. yes, this can be written in the church bylaws. the only problem with it is, of course, a privacy issue.

  • looks like this is perfectly rife fodder for a supreme court case…and has been for several decades now. it’s just that imho, no pastor or congregation has had the spiritual goat sack to endorse a candidate…but i see a definite maga culture shift, and would imagine that it is more likely now than ever. but the window is short. once the dems gain the white house and full congress, then we will see those ‘holy ones of god’ cower….

  • nope you are very wrong my friend. preaching lies from the pulpit is just as acceptable as preaching the truth. just remember that whosever is standing behind it will be held accountable at judgment. so i wouldn’t fear being censored for your own personal beliefs. no matter how socially progressive they may be. censorship is an evil wicked ideology that must be avoided at all costs in a republic. if a white supremacist group is not allowed to peacefully march, then their civil rights have been violated. doesn’t make them right, just protected under the constitution….in all due respect to our country’s forefathers.

  • Actually, pastor/congregations have been blatantly violating the Johnston Amendment for election after election daring the IRS to call them on it. It has declined to do so.

  • Dear reader,

    As far as I know, our country has yet to “go to Hell” due to problems with gun control, climate, criminal justice, etc. Our government has handled all of those issues without any significant problems, regardless of which party is in office. Churches have no need to worry about any of those issues, unless there is a crisis, which currently there is not as far as those issues are concerned.

    There is, however, a crisis in our world. It’s called the murder of children. Or, as you like to call it, abortion.

    And if you think the most important thing that the Catholic Church does is print voting guides, you might want to give the Church a second chance. There is something far more important that I think you missed. It’s called Love.

    Elijah B.

  • No, not solved. I never said solved. Never in human history have any of those issues been totally, completely solved. That would be a utopia, and unfortunately isn’t possible on the world we live in. However, the current state of affairs can hardly be called “Hell.” On the other hand, 60 million babies and counting murdered in our country alone most definitely qualifies.
    Who can take such thoughts seriously you ask? A true American who believes in his unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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