Last Thursday, President Donald Trump made a promise to placate his evangelical Christian voter base. Trump used the annual National Prayer Breakfast on Feb 2 to take aim at a long-standing statutory barrier between politics and religion.
“I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution. I will do that, remember,” Trump boasted to an audience of around 3,000 people which religious leaders, politicians, and high-profile guests like Jordan’s King Abdullah.
Named after former Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, the Johnson Amendment is a provision in the US tax code that prohibits non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates if they want to keep their tax-exemption status. Under the 1954 legislation, churches and other non-profits 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,” according to the IRS website.
Trump has previously spoken out against the amendment during his campaign, and thus secured his support of evangelical Christian leaders, including Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. The Johnson Amendment wasn’t very controversial when it became law, but in recent decades evangelical churches have become strongly supportive of the Republican Party, and have been looking for ways around the amendment. The law itself is narrow in scope- nonpartisan voter education activities, and church-organized voter registration drives are legal. Pastors and church elders are always free to preach on social and political issues, and churches are permitted to publish ‘issue guides’ for voters.
Despite what many claim, this isn’t just about free speech for churches and pastors. This is about money and politics. Conservative groups, like the Alliance Defending Freedom, have long pushed for a greater role for religion in the public sphere, arguing that the Johnson Amendment restricts free speech by censoring the content of a pastor’s sermon. This is a lie. Trump, of course, tried to claim otherwise on the campaign trail, saying:
“The Johnson Amendment has blocked our pastors and ministers and others from speaking their minds from their own pulpits. If they want to talk about Christianity, if they want to preach, if they want to talk about politics, they are unable to do so. If they want to do it, they take a tremendous risk, that they lose their tax-exempt status.”
They could, although this has not happened in the 60+ years of the law’s existence. But if you read between the lines, it’s clear that whoever wrote Trump’s speech knows (or at least Trump should know) that the Johnson Amendment doesn’t prevent clergy members from talking politics. It merely imposes the caveat that clergy can’t talk politics while also accepting the subsidy that the tax code provides tax-exempt houses of worship. It’s a trade-off that Congress has consistently, and correctly, ratified.
Current law already permits religious leaders to express their views about candidates’ stances on particular issues of importance. What they can’t do is express those views on the taxpayer’s dime. The concept behind the amendment is pretty straightforward: if an organization accepts favorable tax treatment, they’re being underwritten by the taxes we all pay. Whether this should happen or not is a different discussion. What is fair, is that, with this tax-exemption, we the taxpayers should not have to pay for the partisan political speeches that we may not agree with.
This isn’t about censorship. Repealing the Johnson Amendment is about changing campaign finance laws. What would actually happen with a repeal is that doors would be opened for churches or clergy to participate in political campaigns. Tax-free donations to the churches could then be used to support a political candidate, and allow for religious organizations to become huge influencers by becoming bigger money players in politics. Abolishing the amendment would undermine the principle that all campaign finances have to be taxed at least once. It doesn’t make sense that an organization should be able to receive government subsidies via tax-exemptions if their activity then turns that tax break into a de facto contribution to a political party and candidate. Political contributions from individuals are not deductible, and businesses cannot deduct them as a business expense, but donors to these non-profit organizations are allowed to write off their donations on their taxes.
If you don’t pay taxes, you shouldn’t be involved in determining how taxpayer money is spent. It’s that fucking simple.
Another aspect to consider is that the Johnson Amendment was specifically created for organizations involved in charitable, spiritual, child or animal welfare, educational activities, etc. They’re given special tax accommodation because their time, energy, and services are spent to improve the lives of others directly. The National Council of Nonprofits issued a statement expressing strong opposition to Trump’s announcement in this regard:
“Nonpartisanship is vital to the work of charitable nonprofits,” said Tim Delaney, president of the Council of Nonprofits. “It enables organizations to address community challenges, and invites the problem-solving skills of all residents, without the distractions of party labels and the caustic partisanship that is bedeviling our country.”
I know he’s not a pastor, but Amen Mr. Delaney. How can a religious institution or organization properly serve its community if it begins worrying about who belongs to what political party? And what accountability would there be in regards to where donations go? Why should they be allowed to take my donation and give it to support a candidate I may oppose? Additionally, if these groups begin collecting donations for political activities, it would allow a back-door way for donors to support candidates beyond any legal donation limit in a regular campaign and permit them to write these off on their taxes. Additionally, these donations would constitute ‘dark money,' since- unlike with PACs- donors do not need to be identified.
If you’re wondering why Trump is attacking a tax code category that’s been intact for more than 60 years, you can blame his creepy Vice President, Mike Pence. Trump would not have won the electoral college vote without the support of the radical religious right. Trump’s own background is nonreligious and full of scandals. He had to give the religious folks something, so he gave them Mike Pence to gain their support. Pence has spent his entire political career trying to create a theocracy. He is the golden boy of radical Christian leaders, happy to be a contact between religion and the oval office. His time as governor demonstrated that he is willing to undermine the core values of a free country in order to impose Christian control of the population. He’s advocated for teaching Christian creationism alongside evolution in science classrooms, believes sex is only for procreation, believes the government should pay for ‘conversion therapy’ to eliminate homosexual behaviour, tried to get a bizarre anti-abortion law requiring all fetus burials passed (don’t worry; our Federal Court put a stop that insanity), and has an obsession with defunding Planned Parenthood despite the fact that taxpayer money already cannot be used for abortions.
A leaked draft of an executive order, fully titled “Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom,” proves how close we are to that theocracy Pence is striving for. The four-page order circulating among federal staff and advocacy organizations seeks to create exemptions for people and organizations who claim religious or moral objections to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion, and trans identities, along with cutting women’s access to contraception and abortion through the Affordable Care Act. With Trump willing to discuss signing something like that so soon after his declared war on the Johnson Amendment, it’s clear that Trump is blurring the lines between church and state, something our founding fathers absolutely objected to. To repeal this would require a huge step from Congress, but with only a few lone members of the GOP willing to call Trump out on his ridiculousness, we need to be worried.
Look, this isn’t an attack on religious institutions and other non-profit organizations. That’s a different discussion. These institutions have an assortment of options to pursue their core missions and still engage in politics. Repealing the Johnson Amendment is opening the door to financial abuses of our system and the potential for candidates to be- for lack of a better term- bought by churches, mosques, synagogues, etc. We already have enough problems with lobbying on behalf of corporations and corporate donations creating puppet candidates to advance their business interests. If you really have a problem with politicians and our current establishment, you should be just as horrified as the rest of us that Trump wants to encourage Congress to repeal the Johnson Amendment. This would favor certain organizations and ultimately violate the establishment clause of the Constitution.
We don’t need more options for political financial donations; in fact, we need less. If an organization wants to campaign and collect money for a political cause of candidate, they need to register as a political organization, pay proper taxes, and not be a tax haven for their donors. This seems obvious, but unfortunately, we have radicals trying to reverse yet another working policy to disrupt our democracy. I like to think Americans are still sane and intelligent though. We believe in individual freedoms, human rights, and a firm separation of church and state.
Let’s work on rebuilding that wall between church and state first, Trump.