The Rev. Wendell Griffen of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark., refers to the months leading up to Election Day as the “silly season” when campaigning politicians seek out opportunities to interact with and influence houses of worship – sometimes running afoul of federal law in the process.
“As a faith leader, I have a responsibility for leading a congregation according to the precepts of our faith, which is not set by government,” said Griffen, who is also a judge on the Arkansas Sixth Judicial Circuit. “My ability to do that is hindered if I’m going to constantly have to referee various politicians coming in, saying, ‘I want to talk about this, and I want you to endorse that.’”
Griffen’s remarks came during an online workshop in September called “No Politicking: Protecting the Johnson Amendment,” hosted by Americans United Senior Faith Adviser Sabrina Dent. Griffen was joined by Rabbi Robert Barr of Congregation Beth Adam in Loveland, Ohio; Maggie Garrett, AU’s vice president for public policy; and moderator Suhag Shukla, cofounder and executive director of the Hindu American Foundation.
The workshop was sponsored to educate faith leaders and others about the Johnson Amendment as the Nov. 3 general election rapidly approached and violations around nonprofit electioneering cropped up.
Garrett explained that the Johnson Amendment is a more than 60-year-old federal law (named for then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson who sponsored it) that protects the integrity of both elections and nonprofits by ensuring that tax-exempt organizations – including houses of worship – don’t endorse or oppose political candidates. Endorsements risk corrupting the charitable or religious mission of nonprofits, not to mention their tax-exempt status.
“Really, it’s a protection for houses of worship,” Garrett said. “It protects them from partisan politics. No one wants our houses of worship to be tools of candidates.”
Well, almost no one. Even though polls have repeatedly shown that the vast majority of Americans – including Republicans and evangelical Christians – don’t want houses of worship endorsing political candidates, repealing the Johnson Amendment has been a perennial pledge of President Donald Trump, several Republican politicians and a handful of faith leaders looking to gain political power.
Trump was in office for only a few weeks when he declared at the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast that he would “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.” He followed up with an executive order that signaled he wanted to undermine enforcement of the law, but the order itself didn’t actually repeal the law as he sometimes claims. In fact, repealing the Johnson Amendment remains a goal in the official 2020 Republican Party platform.
Garrett said attacks on the Johnson Amendment have really picked up in recent years.
“For certain religious leaders who are looking for political power – and there are certain political leaders who want to use houses of worship for their own political gain – they have been pushing to repeal the Johnson Amendment, or sometimes it’s often really a push to just exempt houses of worship from the Johnson Amendment,” Garrett said.
One of the most serious but unsuccessful repeal attempts was in late 2018 as part of the so-called Republican “tax-reform” bill. Although that legislative effort failed in Congress, the rhetoric from the Trump administration and allies has led to widespread confusion about whether the law is still in effect and what houses of worship and faith leaders can and can’t do regarding political speech.
James “Trey” Trainor, the chairman of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) who was appointed by Trump earlier this year, helped spread disinformation about the law during a surprising interview in September with Church Militant, a fringe website that offers political commentary from a conservative Catholic viewpoint. (Trainor’s social media posts sharing Church Militant content and anti-Protestant comments, along with his history of opposing campaign finance reform, led many to criticize his appointment to the FEC last spring.)
During a half-hour interview in which he attempted to rewrite American history and the foundation of church-state separation, Trainor celebrated that the Trump administration is not enforcing the Johnson Amendment – a federal law. He also erroneously claimed that Trump’s executive order gave religious organizations the same rights as secular organizations to talk about politics.
In fact, the Trump administration’s rhetoric has done the opposite. The Johnson Amendment already ensured religious organizations were treated the same as secular nonprofits and charitable foundations because the law applies equally to all nonprofits with 501(c)3 tax-exempt status. Secular and nonreligious organizations – including Americans United – can’t endorse political candidates either. But since Trump and his surrogates have been encouraging faith leaders to flout the law, houses of worship now are getting privileged treatment.
In a statement to Religion News Service, FEC Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub disputed Trainor’s claim that Trump’s executive order allows faith groups to ignore the Johnson Amendment.
“My colleague is not correct,” said Weintraub, a Democrat who has chaired the commission three times since joining it in 2002. “Though the president’s executive order directs law enforcement authorities to not enforce the Johnson Amendment, that statute remains the law of the land and cannot be undone with an executive order. Anyone tempted to violate the statute should keep in mind that a future administration could well decide to enforce the law as Congress wrote it.”
Rather than advise faith leaders to use caution, Trainor and Church Militant founder Michael Voris criticized Catholic bishops who don’t endorse candidates. Trainor, who is Catholic, said, “The bishops are using their nonprofit status as a shield to hide behind having to make a decision about who to support.”
Voris pointed to an August video of a Catholic priest from La Crosse, Wisc., condemning Catholic Democrats as imposters who are going to hell. The video, released by a far-right Minnesota media outlet, featured the Rev. James Altman in his religious garb speaking inside what appeared to be a church about “godless politicians” as clips rolled of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden (both Catholics).
“Here’s a memo to clueless baptized Catholics out there: You cannot be Catholic and be a Democrat. Period,” Altman said. “Their party platform absolutely is against everything the Catholic Church teaches. So just quit pretending that you’re Catholic and vote Democrat. Repent of your support of that party and its platform, or face the fires of hell.”
Bishop William Patrick Callahan of the La Crosse diocese denounced Altman’s video: “Unfortunately, the tone Fr. Altman offers comes off as angry and judgmental, lacking any charity and in a way that causes scandal both in the Church and in society. His generalization and condemnation of entire groups of people is completely inappropriate and not in keeping with our values or the life of virtue.”
Voris and Trainor took issue with the bishop’s calling for Altman to undergo “fraternal correction,” but failed to appreciate the division Altman’s political speech caused within the parish – one of the reasons houses of worship should avoid partisan politics. Parishioners took sides in the media, some shocked by Altman’s speech and others applauding it.
During the AU webinar, Barr spoke of how the Johnson Amendment helps insulate him and other faith leaders from the divisiveness of politics. “I want my members to see me as someone they can turn to, whether they’re on the right or the left side of the aisle,” Barr said. “I am their religious leader, and I want them to have confidence in me that what I’m saying comes out of our values and articulates them clearly.
“Moreover, I think it can be incredibly detrimental to congregations if people see the congregation as a place that becomes overtly political,” he added. “Where someone would come to me and say I’m going to donate money only if you do X, Y or Z. I think you could really upset the balance.”
Trainor himself unwittingly acknowledged the tension houses of worship could face if they get involved in partisan politics – whether their prophetic voice could be compromised if they feel pressured to endorse certain politicians or take certain stances to maintain or acquire government funding.
“Look at the amount of money the church receives from the government for social services,” Trainor told Voris. “They have a big fear of maybe provoking the government into pulling money away from activities that the church [is] involved in. I think it all ultimately comes down to that more than anything else. That’s just from my lay view of what’s going on and knowing how much government funding goes into the church.”
It’s not just national politics that can divide faith communities – local issues can be just as divisive. Leaders of a Denton, Texas, church were conflicted when the church distributed a flyer endorsing specific city council and mayoral candidates in September. At first, Denton Bible Church posted on social media that the Johnson Amendment was known to be unconstitutional (it’s not) and that no church has been “punished” for violating it (also not true – for instance, a New York church lost its tax-exempt status after AU reported it to the IRS for publishing a newspaper ad opposing Bill Clinton for president in 1992).
After the endorsements received media attention, Denton Bible Church backtracked and issued a statement that claimed the flyer didn’t go through the proper review process and shouldn’t have been distributed.
But the church went ahead and sponsored a political campaign rally featuring Allen West, chairman of the Texas Republican Party, and Jeremy Dys, a lawyer for the Christian nationalist law firm First Liberty. Signaling the continuing community divide, a few protestors stood outside the church during the rally – one of their signs read, “Jesus Christ is Lord, not the Republican Party,” according to a report in the Denton Record-Chronicle.
As AU’s Garrett told both the newspaper and the viewers of the webinar, if houses of worship sponsor partisan candidates or partisan events, they should be sure to invite all candidates or also offer to host events for all political parties if they want to stay on the right side of the law.
Griffen said he makes it clear that any politician is always welcome at his Little Rock church – to worship.
“This is a faith community,” Griffen said. “I do not go to the legislature and hold worship services. And you don’t come to this congregation and hold a political rally. I’ll stay in my lane, and you stay in your lane. You’re welcome to come here and worship. But you’re not welcome to come here and politick.”
Contrary to detractors, Garrett pointed out that the Johnson Amendment permits houses of worship and nonprofit organizations to do a lot of political work: “You can talk about politics from the pulpit. You can say you support marriage between same-sex couples or you oppose it. You can make statements about your beliefs on abortion, on reproductive freedom issues. … You can endorse a bill or oppose a bill. … You can speak to your members of Congress. You can speak before a legislature. You can testify. You can write them letters about your positions on issues. You just can’t endorse [candidates] when you’re doing that.”
Garrett went on to add, “You can do nonpartisan work around an election. You can encourage your members to vote. You can have voter registration drives. You can organize rides to the polls on Election Day. You just have to be nonpartisan.”
Hindu American Foundation’s Shukla pondered whether undermining the Johnson Amendment could also be detrimental for religious minorities whose voices won’t be as influential to politicians as faith communities with more members. Barr agreed, warning that repealing the law would likely contribute to the rise of Christian nationalism.
“I see the Johnson Amendment as one more bulwark in assuring separation of church and state,” he said. “If that’s eroded and there’s a dominant religious voice that is being well funded, those of us in religious minorities are going to find ourselves more on the fringes of American society. I think one of the responsibilities of religious institutions is to ensure the health of America. Ensuring the health of America means everyone feels part and parcel of the American experience.
“We as religious leaders need to remind people that … this was designed as a secular country. There is no religious test to be a member of our government,” Barr added. “I think the Johnson Amendment is something that we can hold onto right now and push because so many things are being eroded. I fear for religious minorities. I fear that our voices aren’t going to be heard. That our value sets aren’t going to be part of the public square because the voices of religious groups that are well-funded and are larger will dominate and we’re going to find ourselves sitting on the sidelines with little voice and feeling very, very marginalized. And I think that’s not only unhealthy for those religious groups, I think it’s unhealthy for America.”