There has been more debate than ever this campaign season about whether or not houses of worship should be permitted to endorse or oppose candidates for office. This is mostly thanks to Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump, who has repeatedly said that if he is elected he will end legal restrictions that keep churches from acting like political action committees.
Trump keeps railing against the “Johnson Amendment,” a provision in the federal tax code that says all 501(c)(3) non-profits (not just religious organizations) are prohibited from using their resources to support or oppose anyone running for public office. This has been in place since 1954, thanks to then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas).
The Religious Right has long opposed the Johnson Amendment, and this year some high profile politicians have taken up the far right’s cause on this matter. Just last week at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit (VVS) in Washington, D.C., Trump repeated his pledge to change the tax code if he wins the White House.
Pastors should not preach political endorsements from the pulpit.
Trump said during his VVS remarks that he became aware if this tax matter while speaking with a group of faith leaders last fall. When he asked if they would consider endorsing him for president, he said they told him they can’t do that without risking their organization’s tax exemption. (Of course, that isn’t necessarily true – clergy are free to endorse candidates as long as they make a personal endorsement without using the resources of their church.)
A bunch of clergy endorsing Trump is probably good for Trump. But is it good for houses of worship? A new poll found that a whopping 79 percent of Americans think it is wrong for a pastor to endorse a candidate during a church service, while 75 percent said houses of worship shouldn’t support candidates at any time.
The poll was conducted by LifeWay Research, an arm of LifeWay Christian Resources, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention; it’s not like this poll was done by liberals.
Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, was spot on when he explained the poll results: “Americans already argue about politics enough outside the church. They don’t want pastors bringing those arguments into worship.”
And this survey result wasn’t just a one-time fluke. Other polls in previous years have yielded similar numbers. Back in 2012, a Pew Research Center study revealed that 66 percent of Americans opposed clergy endorsing candidates from their pulpits.
These numbers make perfect sense because people of faith don’t go to their house of worship to be told how to vote. Trump and his allies may not realize it, but if clergy are too pushy on politics they will lose their flocks.
It’s important to note that there are more than 300,000 houses of worship in the United States. The vast majority have no problem playing by the rules and staying out of partisan politics. And while there are absolutely violators on both sides of the aisle, when there is talk of repealing the Johnson Amendment it tends to come from the Religious Right, which wants to turn churches into political action committees. Thus it’s clear that repealing the tax provision would be bad for democracy and for religion.
Instead of repealing the law, the Internal Revenue Service should aggressively enforce the tax code prohibition against pulpit politicking. That’s why Americans United, through its Project Fair Play, is asking the agency to crack down on houses of worship that don’t want to obey the rules. If you agree with us, tell the IRS how you feel by signing our petition.