Repeal the Johnson Amendment: Make Free Speech for Churches Great Again

While the media-begotten pseudo-scandals inundate the electorate with pro-Hillary messaging in an attempt to derail the Trump candidacy, it will do us well to consider some of the substance upon which concerned voters may wish to rely as they are sorting out the 2016 election.  Donald Trump’s nomination acceptance speech contained a brief sojourn into a important but little discussed topic he has reiterated on the stump.  Somewhat buried under the details that Mr. Trump laid out regarding the utter calamity that would be a Hillary Clinton presidency was his commentary on a 1954 piece of legislation known as the Johnson Amendment.  The germane section of the speech was this:

At this moment, I would like to thank the evangelical community who have been so good to me and so supportive. You have so much to contribute to our politics, yet our laws prevent you from speaking your minds from your own pulpits.  An amendment, pushed by Lyndon Johnson, many years ago, threatens religious institutions with a loss of their tax-exempt status if they openly advocate their political views.  I am going to work very hard to repeal that language and protect free speech for all Americans.

Trump’s inclusion of his desire to repeal the Johnson Amendment as a component of his strategy to win the White House is something unique: it is an unexpected shot across the bow against the left, whose culture war has blocked Americans of traditional faith from using the power of the pulpit to influence political discourse over the past half-century.

Even a cursory review of American history reveals that Judeo-Christian values were the bedrock of our founding, and they provided the moral and philosophical firepower to eliminate slavery and underpin the civil rights movement.  The patriot pulpit of old was unafraid of political sermonizing, in spite of the fact that a minister’s message could get him hanged if the authorities found it objectionable.  Consider these fiery words from Congregationalist preacher Jonathan Mayhew from 1750 as he exegeted Romans 13:1-7:

... upon a careful review of the apostle's reasoning in this passage, it appears that his arguments to enforce submission, are of such a nature, as to conclude only in favor of submission to such rulers as he himself describes; i.e., such as rule for the good of society, which is the only end of their institution. Common tyrants, and public oppressors, are not entitled to obedience from their subjects, by virtue of anything here laid down by the inspired apostle.

Mayhew used his religious office to express a message that resistance to tyranny is a perfectly acceptable doctrine by which Christians ought to abide.  Coming a quarter-century before the American Revolution, these incendiary words could easily have been considered treason against the British Crown.  Mayhew also took a public stance against the Stamp Act in 1765, preaching positively on the virtue of individual liberty and the vice of tyrannical government.  Had Mayhew lived under the Obama administration, he might have found himself under IRS audit, as did the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, ostensibly for its public expressions of biblical and political positions.

Politically tinged preaching has been curtailed dramatically since the 1950s, as a byproduct of the Johnson Amendment.  Then-senator Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas) was embroiled in a difficult campaign fight to maintain his Senate seat, and he discovered that his opposition was backed vocally by various anti-leftist Christians.  In order to stymie his opponents, LBJ had language inserted into section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Service Code, which allows for a federal tax exemption for severally named entities (including corporations and foundations operating for religious purposes) so long as they do not use their “net earnings” or conduct a “substantial part” of their organizational activities for “carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation” or to “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.”

Thanks to Lyndon Johnson, churches and synagogues can keep all the money donated to them as long as their public speakers stay confined to discourses that have nothing to do with politics, civics, or matters of public interest (unless of course the messenger is espousing left-wing dogma and supporting statist candidates, in which cases Uncle Sam, through the ever left-leaning bureaucracy, turns a deaf ear to their blatant religio-political diatribes).  It is no wonder, then, that controversial subjects such as the pro-life position, opposition to same-sex marriage, and open support of conservative candidates – all of which are contradictory to the liberal-progressive dogma, which is the de facto earthly theology of the federal bureaucracy – are essentially verboten in the weekend sermons delivered throughout America.  According to one report, “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints brings in some $7 billion annually in tithes and other donations” from its worldwide congregations.  If the LDS church is any indication of the amount of revenue generated by organized religious groups, the 340,000 or so Christian churches and over 3,000 synagogues in the United States are likely collecting extraordinary sums of money protected from the tax man so long as these organizations abide by the restrictions of the Johnson Amendment.

Jesus told His disciples to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s; by protecting their money through tax-exempt status, America’s preachers have surrendered both their right to free speech and the moral authority that comes with taking difficult positions on matters of political interest to Caesar.  Our nation’s clergy has effectively been bought off by the lure of filthy tax-exempt lucre.

Kudos to Donald Trump for suggesting the repeal of the Johnson Amendment.  Were this law excised from the tax code, the pulpit messages of preachers, ministers, and rabbis would no longer be subject to censorship of politically relevant themes due to the fear of the loss of tax exemption.  This would aid mightily in de-weaponizing the federal government’s attack dog agency, the IRS, which currently uses the crafty 501(c)(3) designation to silence conservatives in the ministry who do not wish to adversely impact their organizations’ finances.  Nothing would be more beneficial to stirring a national revival of traditional Americanism than to unmute the voices of our clergy by removing the Johnson Amendment’s fetters that bind up their constitutional right to freedom of speech.

John Steinreich graduated from Colorado Theological Seminary with a Masters in Church History and is the author of The Words of God?, an analytical comparison of the Bible and the Qur’an, available on Lulu Press and on Kindle.