In 1954 Lindon B Johnson persuaded the United States Senate to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1954, requiring 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations to refrain from participation in campaigns for elected office. The rule remains to this day, and we call it "The Johnson Amendment."
President Trump has promised to "get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment." This has become a central theme of his administration's approach to religious liberty issues. President Trump is not alone in his determination to eliminate the amendment. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has long identified the repeal of the Johnson Amendment as one of their top priorities. A lot of organizations would like to see it go.
As for me? I'm pretty ambivalent about the whole thing. Here's why.
Repealing the Johnson Amendment will have no impact upon what my church (or most churches) do. It is an empty gesture. The ADF already hosts a "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" encouraging pastors to endorse or oppose candidates as an act of civil disobedience. No church has ever been prosecuted for participating, to my knowledge. Every church who wants to endorse or oppose candidates for electoral office is already doing so.
Most of our churches do not endorse candidates for office at present for reasons that go a lot deeper than the Internal Revenue Code. I can identify a number of reasons why I am unlikely to endorse candidates from the pulpit no matter what happens with the Johnson Amendment:
My pulpit time is full already, thank you very much. I'm preaching God's Word, attempting to give my congregants sound, expository preaching, which I generally provide by preaching through books of the Bible. I don't preempt that content for elections. Period.
In fact, once upon a time at an ADF event—and the ADF are good, good, good people. I thank God for them—I mentioned that the kind of preaching they were suggesting was difficult to integrate into a schedule of text-driven preaching through books of the Bible. In the conversation that ensued, it became clear that none of the pastors present who were using the pulpit to endorse or oppose candidates were preaching in that text-driven manner. I'm not saying that it doesn't exist anywhere; I'm just saying that the combination is difficult to achieve and therefore rare.
What do you get when you mix religion and politics? Politics. There are plenty of examples demonstrating how political preaching, once it gets its nose under the tent, crowds out gospel preaching. Since my readers are mostly conservative (both theologically and politically), perhaps you can see this more clearly by looking at the churches on the left who have abandoned the gospel and betrayed biblical morality in order to preserve their political alliances. Well, if the gospel is supremely more important than the next election, then letting "good politics" shove the Bible out of the pulpit is really not that much better than letting "bad politics" shove the Bible out of the pulpit.
Let's just preach the Bible and let God do whatever He wishes with its political implications.
Preaching politics can shut doors for preaching the gospel. Sometimes you have no choice but to preach politics. There's a political aspect to the gospel. It comes to suppress a rebellion and change people's allegiances, after all. But when those times come, you learn that many people will not listen to a spiritual message if it starts messing with their political ideas.
That shouldn't make us cowards when preaching the Bible steers us into political collisions. It should, however, make us unwilling to seek out political controversy that biblical preaching does not require us to address. Why offend people about lesser things and lose opportunities to speak to them about greater things?
Even candidates with the right positions on the issues can become liabilities to the churches. When that candidate gets caught in an airport men's room or an FBI sting operation—that candidate whom you used your credibility and reputation to endorse, pastor—what then? The church is certainly safe when she stakes her reputation on Jesus. She's safe when she takes a stand on biblical morality and truth. When she ties her credibility to the behavior of human politicians, she is taking a serious gamble.
Other churches feel differently. Other pastors passionately believe that they should be making endorsements of candidates from their pulpits. I take into account that reality in this point. Those churches and those pastors are probably already endorsing and opposing candidates. I don't think that repealing the Johnson Amendment will make much of a difference in what they do.
Repealing the Johnson Amendment will have no impact upon what the IRS does. The IRS does not enforce the Johnson Amendment. In the 1970s part of my dad's job was to take Democratic candidates around to worship services at black churches to pick up endorsements. The IRS does nothing about that. As I have already said, the IRS does not prosecute those who participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, who are overwhelmingly Republican and white. So it is a little difficult to understand why some religious liberty establishments (generally on the political Left) are going apoplectic about the possibility that Congress will repeal a law that nobody enforces.
Take a chill pill, guys. The only active process that this repeal would shut down are those annual missives from Barry Lynn, and reasonable people everywhere should rejoice in that.
Repealing the Johnson Amendment will change what politicians do. And it is here that the measure should give us all some pause. What we really need is protection for conscientious objectors against SOGI laws and against pro-baby-murder zealots. Instead, politicians make it their top priority to make it easier for them to get political endorsements from us.
"Religious liberty? Why, yes! I want you to have the liberty to endorse me in my next campaign!"
I'll give this to them: They know which side their bread is buttered on.
Personally, I do not look forward to a future in which politicians are pressuring me to gain the official endorsement of our congregation. I mean, I can answer, "Not in a thousand years!" as quickly as the next guy, but it is nice at present not to be bothered with the question at all.
Government shouldn't engage in viewpoint discrimination against churches. But if the Johnson Amendment ever were enforced, there's no doubt that's what it would amount to. The IRS's recent history of targeting conservative groups (which had nothing to do with the Johnson Amendment) reveals that we may not be wise to entrust such power to a government that so easily engages in selective prosecution.
In conclusion, it does not violate religious liberty for religious groups to have freedom of expression. American religious liberty thrived from 1833 (when Massachusetts disestablished the Congregationalist church) to 1954 without a Johnson Amendment. It can do so again. Part of the benefit of religious liberty to society at large is to have spiritual organizations free to critique the government and the culture. Almost all of the time we can do that best without endorsing or opposing candidates from our pulpits or through the official auspices of our churches, but not always. I'd like to think that in a hypothetical electoral choice between Abraham Lincoln and Adolf Hitler my church would have something definitive to say. Most elections don't quite rise to that level of clarity, and most of the time most churches will stay out of the candidate-endorsing business. But both civil liberty and religious liberty remain intact and healthy even when churches have the freedom to speak about elections.
I'd rather President Trump devoted his religious liberty thinking to the many actual threats on the horizon, but if he wants to repeal the Johnson Amendment, I'm OK with that.