Like every other politician, President Trump likes to tell his audiences what they want to hear and make promises to make policies in their favor. Recently at the National Prayer Breakfast, Trump vowed to “totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.” Some people knew very well what he was referring to, while others quickly Googled the Johnson Amendment so that they knew what he was promising to destroy.
The Johnson Amendment is named after Lyndon B. Johnson. When he was a U.S. Senator he was unhappy that a tax-exempt organization was working against him in an election and therefore proposed the amendment that 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations could not participate in political campaigns, particularly to support a particular candidate. If a tax-exempt group breaks this rule, they can lose their tax-exempt status and donations to that organization would no longer be tax-deductible.
The Johnson Amendment applies to much more than just churches; it includes universities, charitable organizations, non-profit hospitals and even groups like the Koch Family Foundation and Trump Foundation. The repeal of the Johnson Amendment, while affecting churches, would also allow other tax-exempt organizations to side with particular candidates in elections. The result would be an inflow of even more unregulated money into elections.
This amendment does not mean that churches can’t engage in any political work. They can put together voter registration drives, and speak about moral issues that are at stake in elections and referendums. They just have to remain nonpartisan and take no stance on specific candidates. You may have even heard these policies stated directly from a church pulpit — the political neutrality required of 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations.
The reason that Trump mentioned his desire to get rid of the Johnson Amendment at the National Prayer Breakfast is because he assumes that religious groups would like to be more partisan and political (and because he assumes that they will side with him over the opposition). Is he right? Should a religious person be in favor of the president “totally destroying” this amendment?
The issue, of course, partly rests on the principle of the separation of church and state. I know that this is a controversial idea, but I want to tell you why I believe religious people should support this separation in general and the Johnson Amendment in particular. When our national government was created by the establishment of the U.S. Constitution, no state church was declared. This was unusual — most European nations still have an official state church. Part of the ideals of the new nation was to provide protection for the free exercise of religion.
You may think that allowing churches to take sides in an election would allow more free exercise of religion, but I believe the opposite would happen. The separation of church and state is often seen as a way of keeping religion out of the government, which it does to a certain extent. But more importantly for me, as a religious person, it keeps the government out of religion. We overlook, to our peril, the dangers of the politicizing of our churches. In the past few decades we have seen many evangelical Christian churches turning their focus so much to politics and political issues that they have lost their focus on the teachings of Christ.
Can you imagine going to church and having your Bishop or Pastor advocating for a particular candidate? Maybe you can, and you think they would side with you. But what if they tell you to vote for the other candidate or party? Should you change your vote? What if the bishop of one ward disagrees with the bishop of another?
The Johnson Amendment, thankfully (and maybe as a side effect), keeps the political parties out of our churches. Can you imagine if churches could become a political organ of the Republican or Democratic Parties? Can you anticipate the money and muscle that would be spent to convince church leaders to advocate for one side or the other?
The other day, as I sat in my church pew, I contemplated what it meant that my church cannot maintain its tax-exempt status if its leaders advocated for a candidate. I realized that my time in church, worshipping, is one of the only safe places left in my life where politics doesn’t intrude. We talk of love, service, care for family and worship of God. I am so glad that we don’t talk about Clinton and Trump.
We might remember the best advice of all on this issue comes from the teachings of Jesus himself. When his opponents tried to catch him either being disloyal to the Romans or to the Law of Moses, Jesus’ response was to say “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” The separation of church and state protects the church from the political pollution of the state. Let’s keep it that way.