Friday, February 3, 2017


At the recent National Prayer Breakfast, President Trump (I think that's pretty much never going to look real) repeated his desire to see the United States Congress do away with what's called the "Johnson Amendment," added to the Internal Revenue Code in 1954 by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson.

It restricts the kinds of things that tax-exempt organizations can say in the political arena. Pastors, for example, can talk about issues from the pulpit but can't endorse specific candidates. Neither can churches. They can print "voter guides" which tell how legislators have voted on specific issues or how they have answered questionnaires prepared by one group or another.

Because of the First Amendment to the Constitution, churches are exempt from most taxes. The theory behind the Johnson Amendment is that in order to maintain the separation of church and state upon which the exemption rests, churches can't take sides in actual political races, even though they can obviously take sides on issues that affect them.

Bills to do away with the Johnson Amendment have been introduced before, and it seems that there's already a couple in the mix this year as well, probably hoping to ride on the president's free publicity for them. None have ever passed, and even if this year is different, it's very unlikely that they would be in effect before being challenged in court. There's no way to know how the Supreme Court would eventually rule, but even courts with conservative majorities over the years have upheld the idea that the First Amendment draws a line between churches and governments.

I'm personally in favor of the amendment; as I told someone the other day it helps churches avoid crossing that line by setting up a barrier even before you get to it. But some of the pushback seems to be coming from people who don't have a lot of experience with churches. They suggest that if the Johnson Amendment is repealed, then we will have pastors endorsing candidates from the pulpit, and congregations en masse marching down to the voting booth to do exactly as their ministers have said.

Well, I've got a little experience with congregations, and I have to say that the next time they all do exactly what I say will be the first. A bunch of them average about one Sunday a month in worship attendance. Either because they're afraid, or they don't know exactly how to approach it or in a few instances they think it's supposed to be my job, they rarely reach out to new people and invite them to worship with them. If I had the ability to get them to do what I say, I sure wouldn't waste it on something as silly as whether Nancy Pelosi has a job or not.


fillyjonk said...

As someone who's in the pew most if not all Sundays, I find the idea of the pastor or whoever telling me what candidate I should vote for kind of disgusting. Politics spoils everything it touches (IMHO).

As I said on Twitter: I just want to try to love people without worrying about their politics and hearing specific politics (rather than issues, or "how do we square living in the world to day with being a person of faith") during worship would make that harder.

Todd Bergman said...

The greater fear today is the megachurch dollars that can be invested in a campaign. It isn't an acknowledgement of the pastor's authority in moving a congregation to the polling station. In fact, Barna's latest research says that pastors exert very little influence on political quadrants of a parishioners life.

Given the millions (if not billions) of dollars that could be donated through "individual" donors under the name of the church, I see this could be a very positive thing to keep in place.

Friar said...

I definitely remain in favor of it being retained. While the money probably gets where the people involved want it to go in either event, I like that churches remain outside of it.