This column contains a correction.
Standing before members of Congress, Cabinet officials, and faith leaders from across the country at the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast, President Donald Trump reiterated a campaign pledge when he declared that he would “totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.” While Trump’s speech contained little religious content, his renewed commitment to repeal the Johnson Amendment should give faith leaders pause. Such an action could severely compromise the integrity and core mission of houses of worship by luring them into the fray of partisan politics. It would fundamentally alter the legal separation between politics and religion.
The Johnson Amendment’s enduring importance
Introduced in 1954 by then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, the Johnson Amendment is a narrow provision that places limitations on what tax-exempt organizations can do in the political arena.* Under the terms of the legislation, churches, schools, hospitals, foundations, and other nonprofit organizations registered as 501(c)(3) charities “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.” This means that tax-deductible money donated to churches and other nonprofits cannot be used for partisan purposes such as electioneering—or the endorsement or opposition of a political candidate. In effect, the law shields nonprofits from political influence. This enables faith leaders to speak truthfully and prophetically about social and economic justice issues affecting their congregants without fear of reprisals from politicians or wealthy donors who may support a particular candidate.
In a draft executive order leaked this past February, Trump directed the IRS not to enforce the Johnson Amendment, despite polling indicating that 8 in 10 Americans believe it is inappropriate for pastors to endorse a candidate in church. Furthermore, three-quarters of Americans say churches should steer clear of endorsements altogether. According to a recent survey conducted by the National Association of Evangelicals, nearly 90 percent of evangelical leaders “do not think pastors should endorse politicians from the pulpit.” This is particularly significant given that white evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. In a recent letter sent to Congress, nearly 100 religious and denominational organizations across diverse faith traditions urged policymakers to oppose efforts to weaken or eliminate the amendment, stating that they do not want partisan political fights to infiltrate their houses of worship.
As the debate around the Johnson Amendment heats up, here are three reasons why repeal should not be an option.
Repeal would jeopardize the independence of and public confidence in houses of worship
At a time when many faith communities are struggling with declining attendance and growing skepticism, especially among millennials, entanglements with politics are particularly troublesome, as they could cast a shadow over the independence and integrity of religious institutions. Houses of worship are distinct from other nonprofits because they answer to a higher power. Moral authority is not derived from a government agency, and it is certainly not derived from a political official. Rather, faith communities’ practices and beliefs are guided by spiritual principles rooted in theological texts.
Therefore, political endorsements would no doubt have a corrosive effect on the sanctity and purity of faith leaders’ messages, and this could create credibility issues. Notwithstanding the divisions that political endorsements could cause within congregations, they could also raise doubts among congregants about the motivation behind religious messages. People may begin to question whether faith leaders’ teachings are based on religious texts and deeply held religious convictions or whether they are motivated by a political benefactor. Even the appearance of this could undermine faith leaders’ moral authority and sow seeds of distrust and doubt.
Repeal would open the door to outside influence and political manipulation
Any attempt by politicians or other political operatives to manipulate or distort the purpose and function of houses of worship is deeply problematic. Religious institutions do not exist to provide political endorsements for candidates; first and foremost, they are sacred places for prayer and worship. Their missions vary from caring for the poor to providing emotional and social support for those in need. They are safe spaces for the community to gather and to find commonality of purpose. Donors with political agendas could distort these missions and weaponize religion in order to gain political ground. The wealthy could leverage their donations to assert influence not only over which candidate a church endorses, but also over faith leaders’ positions on key policy initiatives.
Current events aptly illustrate the dangers associated with repeal of the Johnson Amendment. Russell Moore—a prominent evangelical leader and president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission—faced intense backlash after he criticized “the old-guard religious right political establishment” for supporting Trump. In an essay written prior to the 2016 presidential election, Moore challenged religious leaders who publicly supported Trump, arguing that they “ignored or downplayed some of the most morally troublesome questions of personal character and, for instance, issues of torture and war crimes, an embrace of an ‘alt-right’ movement of white identity ethno-nationalism and anti-Semitism, along with serious matters of sexual degradation towards women.”
In response to Moore’s criticism, some Southern Baptist leaders threatened to stop funding his agency—or even the entire Southern Baptist Convention denomination. One Texas church withheld $1 million in funds from the denomination. After mounting political pressure from Trump supporters, Moore issued an apology. These are precisely the kind of actions that the Johnson Amendment was designed to guard against. It is worth noting that the Johnson Amendment does allow faith leaders or individual congregants to endorse or oppose candidates in their individual capacity. In this instance, regardless of whether Moore made these statements in his personal capacity, the controversy clearly demonstrates the potential power of money to control speech.
In addition to providing a personal capacity exception, faith leaders and houses of worship have the ability to critique social, economic, and political policies of concern to their congregations and communities. Churches can also engage in nonpartisan voter registration drives, as long as these activities are limited in scope and do not prevent churches from continuing to engage primarily in activities related to their tax-exempt or public purpose.
Repeal would remove needed transparency around campaign donations
The elimination of the Johnson Amendment would create a substantial loophole in campaign finance law that could be exploited by those seeking to influence faith leaders and faith communities. Because 501(c)(3) nonprofits are not required to disclose their donors, political donors could shift many of their political activities to charities, such as churches, in order to avoid campaign contribution disclosure laws.
This means that billionaire donors could give anonymously, while simultaneously receiving a charitable tax deduction. Such an ability could exacerbate the lopsided influence of outside money in American elections created by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a case that drastically reshaped the political landscape in the United States by allowing corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited funds to support or oppose candidates. Policymakers should not allow dark money to seep into the nation’s most sacred institutions through a back door in the tax code.
The protections in the Johnson Amendment are critical for maintaining the institutional integrity of houses of worship. Repealing the amendment would politicize religious institutions and make them subject to political influence in ways that could deeply compromise their core mission.
LaShawn Y. Warren is Vice President of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.
*Correction, April 24, 2017: This column has been corrected to reflect the accurate year that the Johnson Amendment was introduced.