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?