Every once in a while, debate fires up over the Johnson amendment governing free speech rights of religious organizations. And each time, I’m astounded by how many of my fellow Christian conservatives support the federal government telling churches and other non-profits what they can and cannot say. The law is rarely enforced, but in church circles, it still sends shivers down the spines of the faithful.
Passed into law in 1954, as part of the Internal Revenue Code, the Johnson Amendment, named after then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, forbids any 501c3 organization from engaging in political activity.
Today, the president signed an executive order, telling the IRS to “use discretion” when prosecuting the terms of the amendment. It is, however, still the law. Rumor has it that Vice President Mike Pence has been lobbying hard for several executive orders related to government regulations on religious activity.
According to the IRS website, 501c3’s “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” They specifically threaten that any “voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.”
Violating the law “may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.” Whew! But, get this… the original prohibition had nothing to do with being tax exempt anyway. In fact, Johnson never even intended for churches to be included in the ban either, He was aiming for non-profit organizations, like those that fought his candidacy back in Texas.
Regardless, five decades into the war against God in public life, “separation of Church and State” is the loudest argument you hear.
I know how the left feels, especially those who don’t believe in a sovereign God. But it’s those I have grown up with and known all my life that surprise me. To a person, these Christians argue that the church has no business preaching politics from the pulpit. Well, of course, I agree with them. Pastors should avoid discussing politics, especially candidates, except in extreme circumstances, and most would never do so. However, that decision should lie solely with the individual and church. Dr. Wayne Grudem feels the same way, asserting:
“Decisions about what is preached from the pulpit of a church should not belong to the government, but to the individual pastor and the church itself.”
So, why does do we need the federal government to enforce it?
The reason this has become a hot topic today is because over the years, the IRS has interpreted the law to mean they can revoke 501c3 status of any church for simply discussing politics in an official capacity. The Alliance for Defending Freedom has made it a more public matter as well, as a means of stoking interest and driving conversation.
But, the threat to churches is real, and the empowerment of a bureaucrat to determine the appropriateness of your speech is chilling. In 2004, Rev. George Regas of All Saints Church in Pasadena, CA came under fire for a sermon called “What if Jesus Debated President George Bush and Senator John Kerry.” Evangelist Bill Keller, based in Florida, was threatened when Americans United sent a public letter to the IRS asking them to investigate Keller for likening Mitt Romney to Satan during the primaries of 2012.
Ok, Romney wasn’t “Satan,” but isn’t he entitled to make silly statements without the threat of government action?
Some supporters of the amendment worry that churches could become vehicles for campaign cash. There’s a rational argument to say that churches should not be used to funnel unreported donations to supporters in a political cycle. But why? It’s not like it’s in a vacuum. Churches are, by definition very public, and their members have the ability to hold their leaders accountable. Why should we care, and care so much that we use the force of law to prohibit it?
I support allowing churches and their leaders to speak freely about politicians, who affect our daily lives, just as they are allowed (for now) to speak out against sins those politicians defend. It’s not a reach to say that if the Johnson Amendment can tell pastors what they can and can’t talk about with regard to elections, what’s to stop them from expanding this to “hate speech” in the future? This isn’t unrealistic. Nearly every terrible legal tragedy has come from laws whose authors assured us there wouldn’t be one.
Either you support the government telling people what they can and cannot say, or you don’t. The same goes for our houses of worship.