By Hunter Hines
Christian Action League
December 21, 2017
WASHINGTON, D.C. – It’s hung like a Damocles Sword over clergy and churches for more than 60 years. Repealing the Johnson Amendment was one of President Trump’s promises to evangelicals during his campaign. In recent weeks, repeal was a part of the Republican tax reform bill. But the language was removed in reconciliation between the House and Senate’s bills before the final version passed on Wednesday. Now any repeal will have to wait.
The Johnson Amendment is that part of the U.S. Tax Code which prohibits churches and other non-profit groups from endorsing or opposing political candidates. It’s named for the late President Lyndon B. Johnson, who, when a Senator for the state of Texas, introduced it as a part of the 83rd Congress in 1954. At the time, Johnson’s objective was to silence his political opponents that were a part of two non-profit groups. Its larger ramifications, however, included silencing churches on political matters. The measure was passed with no discussion or debate and reads:
“Corporations . . . organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes . . . [can]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.”
“It may come as a great surprise to many, but there was a time in this country when preaching about politics from the pulpit was very much a part of the political landscape,” said Dr. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, “Before going to the ballot box, believers were instructed to go to their Bibles to ascertain guiding principles for electoral matters. Pastors spoke freely about the issues of the day and churches provided direction regarding candidates. Nothing has done more to stifle this liberty than the Johnson Amendment and it ought to be repealed – not simply because it’s unconstitutional but because it’s diminished the freedom of churches to fulfill their calling by directly impacting the moral climate of our nation. There should be nothing wrong with pastors or churches endorsing or opposing political candidates should they choose. It is their God-given right to do so!”
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Christian legal organization, which specializes in defending religious freedom, has ardently opposed the Johnson Amendment. ADF has attempted to challenge the law through their Pulpit Freedom Initiative, which urges pastors to purposely violate the statute in an act of civil disobedience.
ADF believes that if a pastor was indicted it would provide an opportunity to challenge the law in court, proving that it is in blatant opposition to the U.S. Constitution. Although hundreds of pastors have done this in participation with the initiative since 2010, no pastor has been indicted for violating the law. Some believe the lack of any indictment clearly reveals that if the law were challenged it couldn’t withstand judicial scrutiny.
North Carolina Republican Congressman, Walter B. Jones, has been the principal congressional advocate for repeal, leading the fight for several years. Jones did not vote for the tax reform bill that passed this week. His office informed the Christian Action League the removal of the provision for repeal was one of the reasons he voted “no” on the tax bill.
According to The Hill, it was the Senate’s parliamentarian that struck the language which would have overturned the Johnson Amendment. The reason given alleged that it didn’t meet “Senate rules that require elements of the tax bill to have something to do with the budget.” In other words, it wasn’t germane.
Nevertheless, Christianity Today (CT), reported, “Republican Senator James Lankford, a Southern Baptist, and religious liberty advocate, criticized the move to block the measure.” Quoting from an article in The Hill, CT reported the Oklahoma Senator said, “The federal government and the IRS should never have the ability, through our tax code, to limit free speech; this tax reform bill was an appropriate place to address this historic tax problem.”
The Christian Post noted that the Family Research Council also denounced the removal of the language for repeal, but its president Tony Perkins said he believes “the days of the Johnson Amendment are numbered.”
Opponents of repeal criticize it for several reasons. Some say it would allow political campaign contributions to be funneled through the church, while others claim that parishioners argue enough about politics outside of the church and those arguments are not needed inside.
But Dr. Creech said, “The repeal of the Johnson Amendment is not primarily about abuses of political campaign donations. Those concerns can be addressed in the legislation for repeal. This is about free speech. Pastors and churches ought to be able to advocate, support or oppose what they believe about public-policy and its players, and they ought to be able to do this without fear of reprisal by the IRS. As far as fights in the church are concerned, we already have disagreements in the church about everything from what side of the sanctuary the piano ought to be on to eschatology. Why is politics different? Politics is about morality. Do you mean to say we don’t have a position on morality?”
Dr. Creech added that he believes the Johnson Amendment will ultimately fall legislatively or via the courts. “Congress,” he said, “needs to take it up again.”