Johnson Amendment protects churches from political manipulation


The tax bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and the version now being considered by the Senate would roll back the 1954 law prohibiting partisan political involvement by nonprofit organizations, including churches. This effort to repeal the Johnson Amendment would harm both churches and the American political process.

Some say current law centered on the Johnson Amendment limits free speech from church pulpits, but that is misrepresenting the truth.

Currently, pastors can speak to any issue that is important to them and their community, but they cannot push particular candidates in their role as pastor. In other words, from the pulpit, pastors can deal with any issue, but not with candidates. And, away from the church, ministers can work for a candidate, but not as part of their work for the church.

Any Christian, including any pastor, can endorse and work for any candidate or cause; he or she simply cannot do it as the church organization without the church paying taxes.

There are some real dangers if Johnson is repealed. For example, churches could be used to hide political contributions and make them tax exempt for the giver, which they are not otherwise. This could quickly get nefarious.

The New York Times said changing the tax law “could turn churches into a well-funded political force, with donors diverting as much as $1.7 billion each year from traditional political committees to churches and other nonprofit groups that could legally engage in partisan politics for the first time, according to an estimate by the nonpartisan congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.”

Political dollars carry with them the ability to corrupt any system. The splendid American political process continually faces this corrupting influence, and the church would face it if this law is changed.

It might help, however, to think of this on a smaller scale -- not of huge dollars flowing through churches but smaller amounts.

Consider this scenario: Citizen Tom supports Candidate Jane. Tom talks to his pastor, who agrees deeply that Jane is much better than Candidate Fred. Citizen Tom informs the pastor that he already has given the maximum to Candidate Jane’s campaign, but if the church would push her then Tom would fund the effort, including signs saying, “Emmanuel Church Supports Candidate Jane.” Pastor agrees. Deacons agree. Church campaign begins. Citizen Tom is so happy, he actually gives his church more money than the cost of the campaign, and he lets church leaders know of his extra giving.

If you think this could not happen, then you may not have given sufficient consideration to our sinfulness. Scripture and life experience testify to the self-centeredness of humankind, and in the political world, where the machinery is lubricated by money, radical self-interest is the rule of the day.

Church does not need to become just another political force in our culture. Religious belief and observance appeal to higher demands and expectations -- those of God -- and should not become just another tool in the hands of political maestros who may or may not have a value system built on loving one’s neighbor as oneself. More often, politics is known by the opposite -- getting more so that my opponents gets less.

Part of the problem is that we Christians have a king, and he isn’t elected. When we signed on as followers of Jesus we bowed our knee to the king of the universe, as revealed in Scripture.

Living in a democracy gets a little tricky for us. Scripture was not written to people living in democracies, so we have to do some interpreting.

Romans 13 famously says government is established by God to do good.

For rulers [governments] are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it [government] is God’s servant for your good” (Romans 13:3-4a, NRSV, bracketed items added).

In the United States, regular folks like you and me get to choose the leaders of the government, so we need to see ourselves as tools in the hands of God in achieving divine purposes. We should do this with deep humility, recognizing that no one person or group has all of God’s wisdom. Plus, we have a government that respects all people, including those who are not Christians. In short, we have a part to play, but we are only a part.

Democracy is best done by individuals. Some of them are Christians and some of them are not. We do not want churches, mosques, or synagogues to be tools in the hands of the power brokers.

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