Among the executive orders President Donald Trump has signed is one regarding the Johnson Amendment. This column has already discussed this legislation introduced by then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson in 1954. The Johnson Amendment forbade religious institutions from endorsing or opposing a candidate running for election. Historians say that Johnson slipped it through the Senate and onto President Dwight Eisenhower’s desk to offset a potential rival for his Senate seat.
For over 60 years, it has been the responsibility of the IRS to prosecute institutions that violate this law. Most religious institutions have followed the law, understanding that clergy endorsements of candidates create an internal tension within the congregation. This was more important than worrying about the watchful eye of the IRS. Violating the Johnson Amendment would mean the IRS would rescind a congregation or religious organization’s tax-exempt status. The results would be devastating to the fiscal health of a house of worship.
Of course there is nothing wrong with clergy discussing, out of a Scriptural context, the important issues of the day. Yet is there not a difference when clergy, at worship services, advocate for or against a candidate in an upcoming election?
What happens to those who do not agree with their priest, minister, rabbi or a Muslim imam’s opinion?
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Does that kind of advocacy create a deeper level of judgment that goes above and beyond the one that God is supposed to have over human affairs?
Could this kind of activity have an adverse impact on the culture of the religious institution?
During his campaign, President Trump vowed to “destroy the Johnson Amendment.” On May 4, he signed an executive order called the “Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” The truth is that only the Congress can repeal the Johnson Amendment. But his order directs the Department of Treasury to look the other way regarding enforcement of the amendment by saying, “Churches should not be found guilty of implied endorsements where secular organizations would not be.”
The potential problem is that, with this kind of change, citizens could theoretically funnel their political contributions through religious institutions which, in turn, would violate campaign finance laws.
The president’s perspective is that the law has hampered freedom of speech and, in particular, freedom of speech from the pulpit. In his remarks before signing the order. Trump said, “This financial threat against the faith community is over. No one should be censuring sermons or targeting pastors.”
Thank you Mr. President for being concerned about the well-being of the faith community. But I do not believe that this order will make us safe. In fact, the opposite is true.
Nor do I believe that the amendment censures clergy or prevents them from speaking their minds on moral or political issues during an election season.
If anything is clear, it is that the executive order will spread a virus across this land and only exacerbate the political divisions that already infected the culture of American society.
Readers should ask their clergy how they feel about the need to have the freedom to endorse or oppose a candidate. Do we feel we are being censured or that our rights as clergy to freedom of speech are being restricted?
If anything is true, it is that clergy already face a tension within their congregations when they discuss political issues. Some of us avoid them and stick to strictly spiritual issues not connected to social justice or politics in the society.
My view is that the Johnson Amendment is one of the few pieces of legislation that has protected America’s houses of worship from being torn apart from within.
Political issues are not the problem, and clergy speaking on them is consistent with a religion’s teachings on moral and political issues. Yet, endorsing or opposing a candidate adds a layer of potential dissension within a congregation that could be devastating to the well-being of the community.
The truth is that there is enough politics going on in every house of worship. A Pew survey, for example, indicates that the reason for the growing number of people who choose not to join religious institutions is in part due to the everyday politics that turns many — young and old alike — off from joining a church or synagogue.
While the president’s action regarding the Johnson Amendment might free us to endorse or oppose candidates, it comes at the costs to the stability of the congregation. And that, in my estimation, is too high a price to pay for the future of religion in American society.