Trump again says he wants the repeal of the Johnson amendment, which restricts politicking at church

During his campaign, Donald Trump said several times that he is against the Johnson Amendment.  This amendment, approved in 1954, takes away the tax exempt status of churches involved in politics and lobbying.

To be more precise, this story describes the Johnson amendment more fully:

Proposed by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX) and passed by Congress in 1954, the law prohibits tax-exempt organizations—including churches and other nonprofits—from lobbying elected officials, campaigning on behalf of a political party, and supporting or opposing candidates for office. Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code bestows tax-exempt status upon nonprofit groups as long as they don’t “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 office.” (The “in opposition to” clause was added in 1986.)

The Johnson Amendment is now applied most scrupulously to churches and faith-based organizations, which are barred from translating their community organizing into political activism of any kind. A Southern Baptist congregation opposed to abortion, for example, is prohibited from explicitly supporting a pro-life Republican running for Congress solely because of the church’s nonprofit status.

Through the Johnson Amendment, the Internal Revenue Service exercises the power to stifle a religious organization’s right to free speech. In effect, an evangelical pastor, Orthodox rabbi, Muslim imam, or Catholic priest who wishes to urge support for a religious freedom bill or oppose Obamacare’s contraception mandate can be muzzled under federal law.

The suppressive nature of the Johnson Amendment can be traced to its origins in the 1950s—a period that the Left usually condemns as “conformist” and hostile to free speech — and Lyndon Baines Johnson, a man criticized for his low political morals. Running for re-election in 1954, then-Sen. Johnson faced a difficult challenge from his Democratic primary opponent, Dudley Dougherty, who received backing from two conservative nonprofit groups in Texas. The nonprofits churned out campaign materials calling for the election of Dougherty — much to the chagrin of Johnson. Shortly thereafter, the Texas senator urged Congress to take up a proposed change to the U.S. tax code that would prohibit outside groups—like those supporting his primary opponent—from political organizing. Aimed at punishing Sen. Johnson’s enemies, the Johnson Amendment now applies to a wide range of nonprofit organizations, including churches.

At the National Prayer Breakfast today, Trump reaffirmed he wants to “totally destroy” the Johnson amendment.  What that really means, I guess, is that he wants Congress to pass a law overturning the Johnson amendment, and he will sign it.

I think there are advantages and disadvantages to the Johnson amendment for churches.

The primary advantage is that the Johnson amendment encourages an environment at church where politics are avoided.  Nothing causes the Spirit to leave the chapel faster than somebody talking politics during Sacrament.  Political discussions are more common during Gospel Doctrine and/or priesthood and relief society, but again, I don’t go to church to hear peoples’ opinions on politics.

It is of course possible for the Church to maintain reverence even without the Johnson amendment, but I think the church’s overall policy on neutrality helps create a (sometimes) apolitical environment.

An overly political environment creates too much potential for people getting offended, and that is the last thing we should want at church.

It is worth noting that the Brethren were much more vocal about politics before the Johnson amendment.

On the other hand, the Johnson amendment is just another potentially discriminatory rule created by government that gives way too much power to IRS bureaucrats.  The reality of rules like these is that they are unevenly enforced depending on how active bureaucrats want to be, who is in power and what causes are important to the bureaucratic executives.

So, liberals and progressives who hate evangelicals, Catholics and Mormons preaching and lobbying may cheer when a bureaucrat cracks down on these churches.  But how will they react when Trump appoints new enforcers who order the bureaucrats to stop politicking at traditionally black churches or unitarian churches?

The thing about a big and powerful government is that it can be turned against you when the wrong people get in power.  I hope liberals and progressives are learning that lesson with the Trump administration.

I would like to encourage commenters to avoid the issue of whether or not churches should have tax exempt status at all.  That issue is a threadjack from the point of this post.

But I am interested in comments against or in favor of ending the Johnson amendment.  What do you think?

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

18 thoughts on “Trump again says he wants the repeal of the Johnson amendment, which restricts politicking at church

  1. I think the Johnson Amendment should be repealed as churches should have the same freedom as other organizations to support candidates of their choice.

    If it’s repealed, I’m not really worried about the LDS Church getting into politics any more than they have since the amendment has passed. The LDS Church is global now and has a membership base with diverse political opinions. I think they will continue to speak out on moral issues (abortion, SSM, etc.) but I doubt they’d ever endorse a candidate over the pulpit.

  2. The Church’s preference for political neutrality predates the Johnson amendment.

    But I do think that Trump’s proposal to repeal the Johnson amendment takes off the shackles that have for several decades allowed those not hampered by this limitation to punch away at churches and religious preferences knowing that the churches couldn’t respond in kind.

  3. Oh that it were applied equally to _all_ 501(c)(3) organizations, including educational and scientific. Yeah, that’s the ticket. No more political indoctrination or rallies or lectures at colleges, nor any pre-K through post-grad!

    No more Political Science programs at any institution that receives federal funds.

    Yeah, I could live with that.

    If we repeal the Johnson Amendment, new “religions” and “churches” will spring up whose sole purpose is political activity, making all their donations tax deductible. Every PAC and political party then becomes a church.

  4. Apparently Trump has registered as a candidate for the 2020 election. Technically this cuts the legs off of those who want to use their platforms in churches etc. to oppose him. The Johnson Amendment seems to be applied only to the political enemies of those currently in power. I feel that the LDS church should and will continue to urge avoiding political talk over the pulpit or in the precinct of sacred buildings such as chapels or temples, but the uneven and prejudicial use of the law itself makes it a joke.

  5. Given the level of political activism that Black churches have enjoyed, and the resulting lack consequences that they’ve had in this activism, it may just be a nod to reality.

  6. Tax exempt organizations get a subsidy from society, society is well within its right to determine what type of behavior is incompatible with receiving a subsidy. Ideally the rule should be applied to *all* non-profits in an even-handed manner. One way to do this is allow anyone to bring an enforcement action (make this be done in stages, possibly they would need to convince a judge of a fairly high standard of proof before a complaint could be formally filed).
    The big problem though is that Citizens United has opened the doors for nearly anyone to dive into political discourse/lobbying without disclosing their identity nor funding sources, it is difficult to see how the Johnson Amendment and Citizens United can possibly be brought into harmony.

  7. As Meg suggested, I don’t think it would have much effect on the Church if it were amended. The Church takes the same approach in all countries, even in those that have no Johnson Amendment-like restriction.

  8. @John Swenson Harvey: tax exempt organizations are NOT given a subsidy. An organization receives a subsidy when it receives money from the government beyond what it normally would get. Tax breaks (and other forms such as being tax exempt) are usually considered subsidies by those who think that all money rightfully belongs to the government. It’s a very tyrannical way of thinking.

  9. This is a back door way to help the church in a subtle but very real way. Many other churches are overtly political and push the boundaries (or completely step over them) already. Repeal of the Johnson amendment will allow all churches to politic as they see fit. Over the long haul, the churches that are serious about scriptural religions will not go big time political, but many others will get more so.
    The LDS church will stand out even more as a less political organization and as a breath of spiritual fresh air. Our light will shine even brighter on the candle on the hill.
    I also agree with the political reasons for repeal, because it is applied so unevenly.

  10. It’s inherently unjust to tie legality of speech to ones tax status.

    Nothing more should need to be said. But the founders knew that we need to clearly define our principles, so they gave us this law governing the land:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

    Again, to that nothing more should need to be said, but lawyers gonna lawyer, so we need to say more to connect the laws effect and it’s violation of the constitution:

    This Johnson law currently prohibits free exercise of a religion by imposing a cost on the religion if it applies its faith through public advocacy. By definition, that cost means the religion is no longer “free” to express itself if the IRS chooses to tax it as a result of its speech.

  11. One could make a case that tax exempt status for churches (not taxing their property) violates the constitution.

    Also, making charitable donations tax free (ie, making donations pre-tax instead of post-tax, in that you deduct it berore computing taxable income) _is_ a subsidy, and violates the 1st amendment.

    I’d like to see someone address my idea of a lot of new religions/churches forming around or replacing PACs if the Johnson rule is done away with. Liberalism/progressivism, and any other isms, would literally become religions, wouldn’t they?

  12. From the earliest days of this nation property has D been taxed and from the earliest days churches have been exempt.

    The people that wrote the establishment clause did not view an exemption from taxation as establishment of state religion. The establishment clause is referring to a national state church privileged over other religions (ie see Middle East) that would interfer with the free exercise of religion.

    The first clause of the first amendment is about protecting all religions from government through the establishment of a state religion.

    If you read that establishment clause literally to mean all religions can not be equally recognized with tax exempt status, you have to also read it to mean that religions aren’t allowed to be organized period (ie founded and established).

    Clearly the second clause is meant to do away with this confusion and solves the issue.

  13. Sorry Bookslinger, making charitable contributions tax deductible is still not a subsidy. Letting someone keep more of their own money than they normally would is not a subsidy unless you want to argue philosophically that all money inherently belongs to the government. I repeat, a subsidy is when the government gives money to a person or organization (or helps pay for a service or good) that they would not have otherwise. See farm subsidies as an example of a real subsidy. Considering anything else a subsidy is a tyrannical way of viewing things.

  14. Kevin, probably more of a socialist way of thinking since socialism properly defined views the means of production as being owned by society rather than individuals. It would of course be tyrannical to force socialism on others, which means inherently redefining what’s theirs as belonging to society without their permission.

    So if your property belongs to society, any taxes you don’t pay on it means society is in effect giving you a subsidy from the perspective of a socialist. But only if you agree to their premises on socialism, otherwise it’s tranny.

    Which is a long way of saying that socialism sounds possible in theory but in practice doesn’t work.

  15. This is a free speech issue. Political speech is protected by our constitution… unless you are at church. Religious speech is protected, unless you are advocating a political viewpoint. I understand that all rights have limits, but why is engaging in two protected rights at once MORE limited? SCOTUS has ruled that money (campaign donations) is free speech for corporations and PAC’s. But it is not free speech for churches? My conclusion is that a strict interpretation of the Johnson amendment reveals serious anti-religious prejudice. This is one of the very few issues I agree with Trump on.

  16. While I don’t have a strong opinion on this — since I’m convinced the Church will remain politically neutral even if there is no government sanction for failing to — I lean towards repealing the amendment. It is clearly unevenly enforced, and the kind of government monitoring that would be required to evenly enforce it would frighten me.

    We’ve already seen the government of a major city demand copies of pastor’s sermon notes to see if they were speaking against a gay-rights measure. I want no repeats.

  17. On the other hand, if we went the other way and gave anyone standing to make a complaint, we’d have some new people coming into our churches and listening very attentively to our speakers and teachers, and that can’t be a bad thing.

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