Recently, at the National Prayer Breakfast, president Trump announced his intention to destroy the Johnson Amendment. As soon as he spoke the statement both the social media theologians and the lawyers have come out of the woodwork to support or attack the idea. Unfortunately, many don’t know what the Johnson Amendment actually says and fewer still have truly considered the implications of politics in the pulpit.
The Johnson Amendment states that all 501(c)(3) organizations cannot endorse or oppose a political candidate. Failure to abide by this restriction may result (rarely) in a charity losing it’s tax exempt status, or making donors unable to use donations as tax deductions. Under this law churches cannot endorse or fund political campaigns, but are still allowed to conduct voter drives and speak to ethical issues that may influence congregants choice of candidate.
Pastors are under no such restrictions in making personal endorsements, however, when speaking as the voice of the church must abide by the Amendment’s restrictions. If a pastor utilizes a church function or church resources such as a newsletter to personally endorse a candidate, this is in violation of IRS tax code. If, however, the pastor gives his or her personal views in a public setting this is simply considered free speech. Where it gets dicey is that if the pastor begins a public endorsement with “I’m the pastor of XYZ Church,” yet does not directly state the church endorses a candidate there is little IRS guidance.
The goal of the Johnson Amendment is to keep 501(c)(3)’s from influencing the results of an election. To this effect, a pastor may speak about an ethical issue, but may not state which candidate holds this position. This is the sticky area of issue advocacy, and it’s where the IRS has simply failed to provide adequate clarification. The IRS has toyed around with making it a violation of the tax code to speak on an issue that clearly favors one candidate over the other.
Despite the letter of the law it is incredibly rare that the IRS pursues religious organizations. When the IRS does bare their teeth it is only in the most egregious violations. In practice, very few churches will need to worry about being called out on a violation of the Johnson Amendment in the near future. But, that’s not good enough.
The greatest problem with the Johnson Amendment is that there is far too much room for interpretation. Candidates have stances, often contrary to each other, on every issue. The church cannot be expected to preach issue-less sermons when near an election, especially with 18 month election cycles.
The problem is that at the heart of the amendment is the simple statement that a church cannot directly or indirectly participate in or intervene in any political campaign. Churches shape societal beliefs, which in turn, shape elections. The current lack of enforcement makes the Johnson Amendment an easy pill to swallow, but like most of the IRS tax code, it is more about who holds the power and feels like using it than it is about clearly expressing the law of the land.
Polls have suggested that both clergy and the general public are in favor of maintaining the Johnson Amendment. Church laity are the dissenting voice. What do you think? In part 2 we’ll examine the practical and ethical side of politics in the pulpit, but until then let us know your feelings on president Trump’s promise and the Johnson Amendment on Facebook or in the comments below.