The Johnson Amendment–A Good Thing?
May 19, 2017
By The Rt. Rev. Kirk S. Smith, Bishop of Arizona
At a coffee hour recently, someone asked me about the new administration’s efforts to repeal the Johnson Amendment. That question sent me to the internet to do a little research.
According to Wikipedia:
The Johnson Amendment is a provision in the U.S. tax code that prohibits all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Section 501(c)(3) organizations are the most common type of nonprofit organization in the United States, ranging from charitable foundations to universities and churches. The amendment is named for then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas.
In the 2000s, many Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have sought to repeal the provision, arguing that it restricts the free speech rights of churches and other religious groups. Repeal has been criticized because churches have fewer reporting requirements than other non-profit organizations, and because it would effectively make political contributions tax-deductible. On May 4, 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order “to defend the freedom of religion and speech” for the purpose of easing the Johnson Amendment’s restrictions.
Those are the facts, now the interpretation. Some pundits have pointed out that debate about this is meaningless, since many churches are already endorsing political candidates with no consequences from the IRS. It doesn’t even make very good political sense, in that recent polls indicate the majority of Americans oppose churches endorsing political candidates. And finally, in the opinion of most legal scholars, to repeal the amendment is a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.
I am more concerned with the theological ramifications. I don’t think it is a good idea for churches to endorse political candidates. That is not to say that the church should not take stands on the moral and ethical issues that face us. It is one thing to preach about the need for a humane immigration policy, or oppose discrimination of the LGBT community, or support efforts to protect our air and water; it is quite another to say from the pulpit, “Vote for Joe for Mayor!”
The Dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, Randy Hollerith, summed up my feelings recently in a blog posting:
My job as a priest is not to endorse a politician of any particular political persuasion, but to proclaim the good news of God’s redeeming love as revealed to us in Jesus. Easing the restrictions of the Johnson Amendment has the potential to deepen the ideological divides in this country and fracture congregations, not bridge them. This move will politicize churches, distract us from our intended mission and further polarize the people we are attempting to unite.
(Anglican Ink, May 11, 2017.)
There are always those in church who say, “Religion should have nothing to do with politics,” which translated usually means, “The church shouldn’t take a stand on something I disagree with,” but that is not the issue here. For anyone who has read the Bible, it is clear that religion is intensely political and has always taken a stand when issues of justice and mercy are concerned. Jesus was killed for threatening the Romans and the Jerusalem political establishment. But that does not mean that we should ever become a partisan institution or a shill for local politicians. Our parishioners need a place where they can think about the big questions in the light of Gospel. We have one king named Jesus, let’s not forget that.