The Johnson Amendment that President Trump recently promised in his recent National Prayer Breakfast speech to "get rid of and totally destroy" doesn't show up much on lists of issues the American public cares about. But it should.
But first, what is it? Congress adopted it in 1954 (it's named after the man who would become President Lyndon B. Johnson) to prevent charitable organizations, including faith communities, from engaging in partisan politics. The idea is that if such groups do endorse political candidates, they should lose their tax-exempt status.
The most egregious potential violation of the Johnson Amendment is usually described as a preacher endorsing a specific presidential candidate from the pulpit. That doesn't happen much, and even when it does, the Internal Revenue Service has been lax about removing the tax exempt status of the offending church, synagogue, mosque or other kind of house of worship.
Here is National Public Radio's fairly brief explanation of the amendment and how it's been (sort of) enforced. The piece notes that the amendment provides that churches and other nonprofit organizations that are exempt from taxation "are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office." So it's not just presidential endorsements but any candidate at any level.
And it's not just faith communities affected by the law. It's any tax-exempt nonprofit.
But it's hard to enforce because strict enforcement would mean having agents checking out every worship service in the country and every public gathering sponsored by any other non-profit.
Still, a law that's not enforced is no law at all, and, in fact, leads to a disrespect for the law. Which is why the IRS should make a better effort to hold down abuses of the Johnson Amendment -- and they are plentiful on both the left and right of the political spectrum. In fact, as the NPR piece notes, there may be more violations by political-left-leaning churches than any other groups.
Just so you know, there's already been introduced in Congress a bill that would, in effect, repeal and replace the Johnson Amendment. This RNS story explains what it would do.
But why do we continue to need the Johnson Amendment? Randall Balmer, who chairs the religion department at Dartmouth College, answers that question clearly in this Los Angeles Times commentary.
As Balmer argues:
"Kvetching from the religious right is really just an attempt to confuse voters with sleight of hand. Even as they complain about the supposed limitations on their freedom of speech, these leaders fail to acknowledge that tax exemption is a form of public subsidy. The vast majority of the nation’s religious organizations — churches, mosques, synagogues — pay no taxes other than Social Security taxes on wages. So, no income or corporate tax and no property taxes.
"We can have a vigorous debate about whether or not such an exemption is a good thing. (I think, on balance, it is; the founders recognized the value of voluntary associations and sought to encourage them.) But that discussion aside, the bottom line is that taxpayers in any given community effectively subsidize religious groups by paying extra taxes to support municipal services such as police protection, firefighters, parks, snow removal, road maintenance and the like."
If groups want to continue to receive that public subsidy, they should be willing to get out of the political endorsement game. As the NPR piece to which I've linked you above notes, "Overturning the law, however, would also have major implications for campaign finance. If churches or clergy are allowed to participate in political campaigns, tax-free donations to the churches could go to support a political candidate. Religious organizations could become bigger money players in politics."
Non-profits have a lot of freedom about what they say and do, as they should. But it would be a terrible idea to let them keep their tax-exempt status and still be free to be active political endorsers. As a member of a congregation, I don't expect or want that from our clergy. They have other, more important tasks, and as things stand now many clergy don't have the time to do now all that they're already called to do. To get them engaged in active politics would mean they'd be less available for spiritual needs, though, of course, sometimes those two fields cross.
I thought this Capital Broadcasting editorial made a good point about why it's important to keep the Johnson Amendment: Killing it "has everything to do with opening up another unfettered and unregulated avenue to pump billions into American politics. It is an invitation for corruption and destruction of the principle of church-state separation." Bingo.
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THE POPE STANDS HIS GROUND
Pope Francis, through some recent decisions, has stirred up more opposition. And as this commentary on Crux has it (correctly), it demonstrates that this pontiff is on the right track. His critics, meanwhile, are showing themselves to be hypocritical and duplicitous.
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P.S.: When I wrote here recently about the many faith-based groups issuing statements about current developments in the news, I failed to include one from the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council that I think would interest you. You'll find it here. Council members there say, among other things, that "we find ourselves disheartened by news reports that point to the idea of creating a registry of Muslims in the United States." Disheartened is putting it mildly.
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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column -- about death, of all subjects -- now is online here.