“The Winston-Salem Republican Baptist Church welcomes you! Today’s sermon is ‘Why Jesus Wants You to Vote for Jerry Falwell, Jr., for President.”
“We used not to have Republican in our name, but once Rev. Smith started endorsing Republicans from the pulpit, all the Democrats left, so why not?!”
A few miles away: “Welcome to the Democratic Timber Road Church of Christ at Lewisville! Today’s sermon: ‘Why God Will Condemn You if You Don’t Vote Straight-Ticket Democratic.'”
“Once all the Republicans left when Brother Jones endorsed the Democratic candidate for governor, we needed members quickly or we would have to shut down. We heard a bunch of Democrats were leaving other churches, so we thought we would let them know they are welcome here by changing our name.”
A few more miles away: “The Clemmons Misty Road Methodist Church greets you this Sunday morning! Today, in preparation for election day next month, you will hear two sermons:
- “Franklin Graham is the Closest Candidate to Jesus, While Elizabeth Warren Promotes Sin” from our senior minister
- “Elizabeth Warren Embodies ‘Love Your Neighbor,’ While Franklin Graham Breaks the Commandment Against Lying and is a Goat, per Jesus” from our minister for families
There’s plenty of room in the pews. Both are preaching because our council members are evenly split politically. We have a business meeting tonight to consider our future.”
At all three churches: “Although you can’t deduct contributions to political parties from your taxes, you can deduct your contributions to church! Why give to a political party when you can give to us and get a tax deduction?”
“The church bought all the political-campaign literature and signs out front in the lobby! Please pick them up and give them to your friends! The church also bought TV time! Look for our church’s ad this week on TV where you’ll see me standing right here in the pulpit telling all the viewers why they should vote the way I say!”
And downtown: “Hey, I’ve enjoyed being here at the Whig-Federalist Party rally. We need more money for the Party. It is too bad that political contributions are not tax-deductible. Why don’t we start a ‘church’ (wink, wink) so our donors can deduct their contributions? We can hold ‘church’ once a quarter. It will be great! Dale can lead singing.”
Not Far-Fetched: The Johnson Amendment Helps Keep Such Things from Happening
Repeal of the Johnson Amendment—and failure to enforce the Amendment—could give rise to those scenarios and worse.
Federal law states that churches are generally exempt from federal tax, but there are conditions to the church remaining tax-exempt. Those conditions include that the church not participate in political campaigns.
Specifically, the law says that the church must “not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
This part of the law requiring churches not to participate in political campaigns is known as “the Johnson Amendment,” named after Lyndon Johnson, who introduced the provision as a Senator when it became law in 1954. It applies to churches and most other non-profit or charitable organizations.
If a church violates the Johnson Amendment by participating in a political campaign, then the church is supposed to be subject to federal tax, just like for-profit companies, rather than remaining tax-exempt.
Examples of actions by a church that probably violate the Johnson Amendment include endorsing a candidate or opposing a candidate from the pulpit, taking out newspaper advertisements opposed to a particular candidate, and distributing campaign literature that involves statements endorsing or opposing a particular candidate.
Individuals employed by a church can endorse candidates, etc., but must take care to do so on their individual behalf and not as a representative of the church or on behalf of the church.
Donations given to churches are generally tax-deductible, in part pursuant to the same federal law. A church’s violation of the Johnson Amendment would also put those deductions at risk for the individuals who make them.
Campaign Promises to Repeal the Johnson Amendment
President Trump promised in his campaign to repeal (eliminate) the Johnson Amendment. Bills have been introduced in Congress to do just that.
With repeal, churches would keep their tax-exempt status and would be able to endorse and oppose political candidates and become much more politically active, as a church, including using church funds, endorsing candidates from the pulpit, etc.
Today’s Executive Order and Statements by the President
Today, the President took a step towards repealing the Johnson Amendment by issuing an executive order titled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” Arguably, today’s order and statements by the President constitute an action practically very similar to repeal.
Referring to the Johnson Amendment in a speech today, the President said that “this financial threat against the faith community is over.” He also said “we do not fear people speaking freely from the pulpit, we embrace it.”
The Actual Text of the President’s Order Says Something Different
The text of the order does not go that far. The text is convoluted and ambiguous, though.
The order directs the Treasury Department not to take any adverse action, such as denial of tax-exempt status, against any individual or religious organization “on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective.”
It directs such non-action, though, only “where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office by the Department of the Treasury.”
The text of the order seems to say that if a church speaks out on a political issue from a religious perspective, the church will not lose its tax-exempt status, but only if what the says has not ordinarily been treated by the Department as participation in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate.
In other words, per the text, if the Department of Treasury considers the church’s speech as the type the Department usually treats as such participation in a political campaign, then the new executive order does not apply, i.e., the church can still lose its tax-exempt status because of the church’s political activity.
The text of the order thus seems very different from President Trump’s words introducing the order, that “this financial threat against the faith community is over.”
The text may be an ambiguous reference to the rarity of the Department finding that a church’s activity gives rise to the need to enforce the Johnson Amendment, at least publicly. The text may be an attempt to have the official statement stay within the law, as the President is required to do.
Messages Sent Anyway, And The Result May Be The Same as Repeal
Regardless of the order’s text, the President has sent clear signals to the Treasury Department, preachers, and others about the President’s views on enforcing the Johnson Amendment. Essentially, he does not want it enforced.
The President cannot repeal the Johnson Amendment unilaterally. Only Congress can. Repeal will likely be on the Congressional agenda soon. Bills have been introduced in the past to repeal it.
He can, though, give directions to executive agencies regarding not enforcing the law. This is controversial and its legality is debated.
Not enforcing the law is not very different, practically, from repealing it.
Surveys: Church Leaders and Voters Are Against Repeal and Endorsement from the Pulpit
A National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) survey found that 89% of evangelical leaders believe that pastors should not endorse politicians from the pulpit. A March 2017 Independent Sector survey found that 72% of voters are against repeal of the Johnson Amendment, including 66% of Trump voters.
A PRRI survey found that 71% of Americans oppose allowing churches and other places of worship to endorse political candidates while retaining their tax-exempt status, while 22% favor it. White evangelical Protestants were the most in favor of allowing such endorsement, with 36% in favor, but still with a majority (56%) opposing.
Congressional repeal is thus not a foregone conclusion, but in today’s political environment it is a real possibility.
If you do not want politics—or more politics—in your church, then your opposition to the government’s failure to enforce the Johnson Amendment and to Congress’s repeal of the Johnson Amendment is crucial. If you are in favor of an intensely political church, then repeal is helpful to that end.
“Will we create an ecclesio-political situation that further divides already fragmented Christian communions and individuals?” This question, recently posed by Bill Leonard, my professor at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, is the question that we, as a country, have before us.
(The picture is one I took this afternoon of an IRS form.)
Sources and Notes:
Federal law currently …: Section 501(c)(3) of title 26 of the United States Code. It also provides that the church (or other 501(c)(3) organization) must be such that “no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation” (sometimes referred to as “lobbying”).
Bills … introduced …: One is here (House Bill 153 from 2015).
Today’s executive order is here. It addressed other issues, too.
Referring to …: source is here (click on the video).
NAE survey is here.
Independent Sector survey is here.
PRRI survey is here.
“Will we create ….”: Bill Leonard, “Splitting churches right and left,” Winston-Salem Journal, February 14, 2017. Dr. Leonard’s article was also the first one I saw to raise the spectre of churches putting “Republican” or “Democratic” in their names.
The federal law itself is focused on whether the church (or minister) is campaigning for or against a particular candidate (as opposed to talking about what some people will refer to as “political issues”). It’s called the Johnson Amendment. Talking about issues instead of individual candidates is a way a lot of churches handle it. But it can’t reach the level of “lobbying” relative to influencing legislation.
The law says that the church must “not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” The downside is that the church can lose its tax-exempt status if it violates this law. This law does not apply just to churches, but to all non-profit or charitable organizations that want to be tax-exempt entities under federal law.
Political donations are not tax deductible. Part of the idea is that if churches could endorse candidates, then political donations would flow to churches because it would make them deductible. And so churches (and other non-prof groups) would become partisan, candidate-puppets, candidate driven, etc. And this would favor religious candidates over non-religious ones, etc.
Individuals employed by a church can endorse candidates, etc., without violating that law, but must take care to do so on their individual behalf and not as a representative of the church or on behalf of the church. Talking about “political issues” (as opposed to endorsing / opposing a candidate) likely will not violate that law either.
President Trump promised in his campaign to repeal the Johnson Amendment. That hasn’t happened, but he did issue an executive order directing the IRS, etc., that he said allows people to speak freely from the pulpit. There’s room for doubt about whether a President can do that in light of the US Code that says something different. The text of the order does not go as far as Pres Trump described it in the accompanying press conference. The order directs the Treasury Department not to take any adverse action, such as denial of tax-exempt status, against any individual or religious organization only “where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office by the Department of the Treasury.”
In any event, it is extremely rare for such action against a church or other non-profit to take place generally.