Partisanship And Pulpits: The Johnson Amendment Should Be Left Alone

Americans don’t want their houses of worship to become centers for partisan politics. This fact comes through loud and clear in every poll taken on this subject. People think it’s a bad idea.

Members of the clergy don’t like it either. Most of them understand that faith communities are the one place where many Americans believe they can escape the bitter partisan divide that increasingly marks our country.

Of course, there are some people and religious leaders who believe that partisanship is fine for churches. Unfortunately, their view, although it is a minority perspective, seems to be carrying the day in Congress.

A new tax bill in the House of Representatives that was introduced by the Republican leadership would undercut the Johnson Amendment, the more than 60-year-old federal law that bars tax-exempt entities, including houses of worship, from intervening in political races by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.

The effort, which has the support of President Donald Trump, is designed to placate the Religious Right. Even as Trump’s support plum­­mets among Americans across the board, members of that movement remain firmly in his camp. He’s eager to keep them happy. Trashing the Johnson Amendment is part of the plan.

But it’s a mistake – for several reasons. For starters, the House plan is simply ill-conceived. It would allow houses of worship and other nonprofits to endorse or oppose candidates for public office under certain conditions, a scheme that dramatically changes the fundamental nature of nonprofit organizations in America.

These entities receive the benefit of tax exemption because they are acting for the public good. Partisan politics helps only a candidate or a party; that’s hardly a benefit to the larger public.

And, although the House proposal doesn’t specifically allow tax-exempt organizations to funnel money to candidates, inevitably, the issue of cash will be implicated. Donors who want to influence the course of an election could choose to divert their donations from campaigns to houses of worship and other nonprofits. A house of worship or secular nonprofit could then use that money to promote a favored candidate from a pulpit, in a church bulletin, on a website or another vehicle. Worse yet, the funds donated would be considered tax deductible!

The Johnson Amendment has served our country well by protecting the integrity of elections and houses of worship. It should be left alone.