President Donald Trump promised last week to release the nation’s religious groups from the burden of the 63-year-old IRS rule that bans them from participating in political campaigns and from endorsing candidates for elected office.
Trump promised, during last week’s National Prayer Breakfast, to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which was crafted by then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson and passed by Congress in 1954 to prevent nonprofit charitable organizations, such as churches, from participating in political campaigns and from making political endorsements. Trump said repealing the restriction would allow “our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution”and grant churches the “right to worship according to their beliefs.”
Except there is no prohibition on the right to worship according to your beliefs — the Constitution guarantees this in the First Amendment — and neither the churches nor the clergy are forbidden from tackling tough political and social issues. The minister of a church is also not banned from endorsing a candidate, so long as he is not making the endorsement as part of a church event. What’s more, the IRS has never prosecuted a single charitable organization (one was once audited) for violating the Johnson Amendment. Since 2008, the Alliance Defending Freedom — which has long lobbied for a repeal of the amendment — has supported “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” which encourages pastors to defy the law and give political sermons. As part of this event, many pastors send their sermons to the IRS.
There is not a lot of support among church members for their churches to begin engaging in partisan politics. A 2015 survey by a Christian polling firm found that 79 percent of Americans believed that allowing pastors to endorse candidates during worship services was a bad idea.
That might be the reason that church groups were among the first to disagree with Trump’s proposal. The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty issued a statement arguing that letting churches be political “does them no favors” and was “an attack on the integrity” of charities and the nation’s existing campaign finance framework. The organization went on to call a repeal a move that would invite “partisan divisions into the pews and harm the church’s ability to provide refuge.”
Letting churches and charities raise and spend money for political candidates could have a profound effect on the activities of both, effectively transforming religious organizations into Super PACs free from public disclosure requirements and granting big donors enormous tax deductions for their “charitable” (read: political) donations, a subsidy that would go disproportionately to the most wealthy Americans.
Meanwhile, allowing churches to remain tax-exempt even as they are allowed to participate in partisan politics means taxpayers would be subsidizing political activities they might not agree with. Interestingly, Republican politicians have long framed their support for union-busting right-to-work legislation on the grounds that individual members’ union dues shouldn’t be used to fund the campaigns of political candidates whom they don’t support.
Politicians and religious organizations that support repealing the Johnson Amendment are being hypocritical. If a church wants to get down in the mud of partisan politicking, it is free to do it without repealing the Johnson Amendment; all it has to do is surrender its tax-exempt status and agree to share in the cost of municipal services that are now subsidized by taxpayers on its behalf.
The point of the Johnson Amendment is simple: You have to pay to play. If you don’t want to pay taxes, then you can’t get involved in politics.