Sunday, February 5, 2017

Johnson Amendment Repeal a Bad Idea

On Thursday's National Prayer Breakfast, President Donald Trump once more promised to "destroy" the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law introduced by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson. The amendment prevents tax-exempt religious organizations from endorsing or supporting political candidates, under penalty of losing their tax-exempt status.

The statement was not really a surprise, since Trump repeatedly promised to repeal the law during the campaign. But it also is a profoundly bad idea, and not just for the reasons that you might think.

During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly promised to seek the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, a rule that prohibits tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches, from supporting candidates for public office.

The law forbids ministers from endorsing candidates from the pulpit, i.e. in their official capacity as ministers. Trump, however, sometimes seems to believe it prohibits religious leaders from expressing any political beliefs at all and perhaps prohibits them from talking about religion itself. From a speech on Sept. 9:

"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."

Like many Trump positions, his vow to “destroy” the amendment (which would require an act of Congress) seems to be less about policy specifics and more about channeling a vague sense of righteous backlash against liberal big shots. And Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast—at which he also engaged in a snide tangent about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Celebrity Apprentice ratings—Trump vowed to “destroy” the amendment.

Say this with me slowly: The separation of church and politics protects churches. People advocating for more political churches don't seem to understand this, and if they get what they want, I think they will be surprised and possibly even horrified about the circumstances that would unleash. Much like Trump's presidential campaign, they are so laser-focused on winning that they haven't given much thought to the ramifications of that win.

Conservative churches have already come up with workarounds to deal with the Johnson Amendment, such as distributing "voter guides" listing the positions of candidates and then advocating for specific issues from the pulpit. It's allowed because religious leaders can discuss political issues all they want, they just can't advocate for candidates. And the voter guides are just public information - with the side benefit of making it clear which candidate supports the organization's position on the issue in question.

So it really isn't correct to say that religious leaders can't make their preferences known, even in official capacities. Furthermore, only a handful of religious organizations have ever been investigated under the law, and as far as I know few if any have had their tax-exempt status revoked. Therefore, it might be reasonable to think that the repeal of the Johnson Amendment won't affect much of anything aside from allowing religious leaders to mention candidates by name in their sermons. But that's just where it starts.

The "wink wink" manner in which churches have to skirt the Johnson Amendment does serve a purpose - it prevents churches from engaging in large-scale overt political activism. This, in turn, protects churches from basically being turned into political action committees by their leadership. When you let churches start influencing politics, politics is going to start influencing churches - pretty much by definition. And it's hard to express how bad that situation is for genuine spirituality.

Too many people already treat their churches like de facto social clubs. How is that going to get any better when churches start having the ability to engage in politics? Frankly, on a personal level I hate the religious right, and part of me thinks that we should just drop the amendment and let the chips fall where they may. I am pretty convinced that "political churches" are very likely to collapse into irrelevance in record time.

Also, it should be kept in mind that this will apply to all religious groups. Conservative Christians should take another look at Neil Gorsuch's writings, as his expansive views on "sincerely held religious beliefs," which they like so much, appear to be entirely consistent - that is, as far as I can tell, they apply to any such beliefs whatsoever. When Gorsuch rules that the Satanic Temple has the exact same rights to discriminate and engage in political activities as you do, tell me what you think of him then.

But that's really more of a side issue. The point is that if we allow churches to engage fully in politics, that's what a lot of them are going to do. And the only people who are going to stick around at that point are naked partisans, not people who are looking for a way to connect with God. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if once the Johnson Amendment is dropped, "non-political" is going to rapidly become a selling point for churches. Is that really what the religious right wants?

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