Looking over the history of U.S. laws governing campaigns and elections, a sad pattern emerges. What’s sold as an improvement almost always becomes tainted by loophole-seekers.
The explanation is because of a powerful bond between the wealthy seeking to unfairly influence policy and politicians perpetually asking for more money. Thus, each new reform turns into an exercise at finding the law’s weaknesses, i.e. vulnerable places where the money can keep flowing.
Enter congressional Republicans’ attempts to revoke the Johnson Amendment, a law dating to 1954 that prevents pastors from explicitly endorsing candidates from church pulpits. Doing so would endanger a church’s 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service.
On its face, the repeal argument breaks down simply. Why should pastors give up their First Amendment right to free speech every Sunday morning at 11?
In fact, some ministers in recent years have taken to acts of civil disobedience, preaching electoral politics from their pulpits annually on a designated Pulpit Freedom Sunday. Thus far, none of those would-be Rosa Parks in clerical robes have been punished by the IRS.
“The ultimate goal of Pulpit Freedom Sunday is to restore a pastor’s right to speak freely from the pulpit without fearing government censorship or punishment,” Erik Stanley of the Alliance Defending Freedom told CNN in 2016. “The IRS currently holds the power to impose legal sanctions on a church for something its pastor preaches from the pulpit.”
During the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump took up the cause of these ministers looking to mix preaching and politics.
Speaking to conservative Christians in 2016, Trump said, “I think maybe that will be my greatest contribution to Christianity — and other religions — is to allow you, when you talk religious liberty, to go and speak openly, and if you like somebody or want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to do it.”
Yet, many organizations, religious or otherwise, fear what might happen to a political landscape free of the Johnson Amendment. Their concern is that a repeal will attract those aforementioned loophole-seekers. It’s no stretch to imagine dark-money forces looking to create sham churches that are little more than fronts for attracting campaign contributions. At the very least, churches will be pressured to join the fray of partisan politics.
“Newly politicized churches will receive a taxpayer-subsidized payoff of more than a billion dollars each election cycle if a provision tucked in the back of the House GOP tax bill passes,” Tim Delaney, National Council of Nonprofits CEO and president, said recently. “The provision is shameless, even by Washington standards.”
Or, as an open letter signed by more than 4,000 religious leaders notes, “Faith leaders are called to speak truth to power, and we cannot do so if we are merely cogs in partisan political machines. The prophetic role of faith communities necessitates that we retain our independent voice.”
Congressmen considering scrapping the Johnson Amendment should be wary of the unintended consequences.