Repealing the Johnson Amendment: legal and ecclesiological problems

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Bert Perry's picture made subtly, but rather emphatically, by the author; the IRS does not bother to enforce it if it can avoid doing so.  Such a law will be a cause of nothing but mischief if it stays on the books.

Don't get me wrong; I don't want my pastor endorsing candidates from the pulpit, and I don't want my church to be (like the stereotype) indistinguishable from my party.  But if a law is going to go unenforced because the enforcers aren't willing to test it in the courts, we either need to get new enforcers or get rid of the law.  Given the recent history of the IRS, I dare say "both" would be appropriate.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jim's picture

How politically inclined preachers get around the Johnson Amendment

Ministers know the pulpit promotion routine: Just tell congregants, “Our church strongly supports proposed Law A. Politician X supports it, too, while Politician Y opposes it. Be sure to vote for whichever of these candidates best reflects our values.” Thus the minister avoids explicitly endorsing either candidate. But her recommendation is clear. If there’s any congregant who’s too dense to understand which candidate the church prefers, he probably can’t find his polling place anyway.

How much political activity could churches do if Trump can repeal the Johnson Amendment?

Despite the concerns of Trump and some conservatives, religious organizations today are given great latitude in their activities. Many accept tax-deductible contributions without bothering to apply for 501(c)(3) status and often without meeting the strict requirements of the tax law. Many clergy talk politics in their sermons without real fear of government punishment. Indeed, many conservative churches run a high-profile “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” explicitly aimed at flouting the law.

The Johnson Amendment In 5 Questions And Answers

Does this prohibit all types of political activity in churches? No. The law is fairly narrow in scope. Nonpartisan voter education activities and church-organized voter registration drives are legal. Pastors are free to preach on social and political issues of concern. Churches can publish "issue guides" for voters.

Trump Wants to Make Churches the New Super PACs His promise to repeal the 1954 Johnson Amendment isn’t about free speech—it’s about cash.

If the Johnson Amendment were repealed, pastors would be able to endorse candidates from the pulpit, which they’re currently not allowed to do by law. But it’s also true that a lot more money could possibly flow into politics via donations to churches and other religious organizations. That could mean religious groups would become much more powerful political forces in American politics—and it would almost certainly tee up future court battles.