During this week’s National Prayer Breakfast meeting, Donald Trump once again brought up his promise to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment. He places this argument in the context of freedom of religion “the right to worship according to our own beliefs” and freedom of speech – that pastors should be able to say whatever they want from the pulpit. This is a pitch that has been sold to some, but not all, of the evangelical churches.
The answer to Trump’s argument is simple. Horse puckey. The Johnson Amendment is part of the tax code that applies to ALL 501(c) 3 non-profit organizations. It’s been on the books since 1954 when it was introduced by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson. According to the Washington Post, in the 63 years since it’s passage, the IRS has “only investigated once and did not punish in that case…” This is despite the activities for several years by more than 2,000 pastors who have joined in a movement they call “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” to test the limits of the law.
So why, if this is a code that is rarely investigated, let alone enforced, would Trump and some churches want it abolished? It’s quite simple actually. It’s not about restraining pastors from saying whatever they wish from the pulpit, it’s not a restraint on freedom of religion – its all about the $$$$. Were the Johnson Amendment eliminated, something, by the way, that only Congress not Donald Trump can do, churches would be able to maintain their tax-free status AND raise money for the candidates they support. In other words, our houses of worship would become SuperPACs. In reality, they would become SuperDuperPACs because parishioners could donate money to their churches to support a particular candidate and still take a tax deduction for their contribution.
But most religious organizations, including conservative ones, are just fine with the way things are now. Following Trump’s remarks at the Prayer Breakfast, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty issued the following statement:
“Politicizing churches does them no favors. The promised repeal is an attack on the integrity of both our charitable organizations and campaign finance system. Inviting churches to intervene in campaigns with tax-deductible offerings would fundamentally change our houses of worship. It would usher our partisan divisions into the pews and harm the church’s ability to provide refuge.”
Anyone who is active in their own church knows there are more than enough topics to keep the congregation divided without throwing which political candidate to support into the mix. What are we going to end up with – Democrats sitting in the pews to the left of the aisle, Republicans on the right and Independents relegated to the balconies?
Neither religious liberty nor freedom of speech is under attack here. The only attack that comes to mind is the one of Jesus throwing the moneychangers out of the Temple for putting money ahead of prayer.