Trump Promises to “Destroy” Johnson Amendment

February 8, 2017
A pastor delivers a talk

Last Thursday while attending his first National Prayer Breakfast, Donald Trump reiterated his intention to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, thereby allowing houses of worship to engage in political endorsements.

Trump’s promise to overturn restrictions on pulpit politicking was one of his most consistent talking points during his presidential campaign. While meeting with a group of conservative Christian leaders in June, Trump anticipated that the move “maybe…will be my greatest contribution to Christianity—and other religions.”

“If you like somebody or want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to do it,” he said. “You don’t have any religious freedom, if you think about it.”

The Johnson Amendment was passed in 1954 by a Republican-majority Congress and signed by Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower. It prohibits churches and other tax-exempt charities from endorsing or opposing any political issue or candidate. In recent years, conservative legal group Alliance Defending Freedom has encouraged pastors to dissent by recording themselves delivering politically-charged sermons and sending the evidence to the International Revenue Service (IRS). The IRS has rarely followed up on these cases.

While its detractors complain that the amendment curbs their right to free speech, others understand the amendment’s purpose differently.

“Pastors can say whatever they want, as can anyone else,” University of California, Davis law professor Alan Brownstein told The Atlantic. “The question is whether a tax-exempt institution can say whatever it wants and retain its tax-exempt status, and whether the pastor as an official can use his or her position in the tax-exempt institution to engage in electioneering.”

It is this latter concern that many have raised in the week following Trump’s Prayer Breakfast speech. Because the amendment affects houses of worship and all other 501(c)3 charitable organizations alike, its abolishment would wreak fundamental changes to the American campaign landscape. Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, told Salon that eliminating the Johnson Amendment would allow “church members [to] give tax-deductible donations to a church, which would then be used by the church to campaign for a specific candidate.”

“Because churches have fewer reporting requirements than PACS [political action committees], it would mean even less transparency in campaign finance,” he said.

Religious leaders’ responses to the promised changes have been mixed. Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas told The Dallas Morning News that he supported Trump’s plan. “The Johnson Amendment and the IRS code has been abused by liberals, used by liberals to intimidate pastors,” he said.

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, however, released a statement shortly after Trump’s speech asserting their opposition to the repeal.

“Politicizing churches does them no favors. The promised repeal is an attack on the integrity of both our charitable organizations and campaign finance system,” the committee said.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis similarly affirmed their commitment to the Johnson Amendment. In a statement Friday, the organization wrote,

“Reform rabbis regularly raise the voice of Torah, individually and collectively, speaking out for justice and righteousness in the great tradition of our ancient prophets. The Johnson Amendment does not restrict the ability of any religious institution or other non-profit to speak out on important issues.”

The statement continued, “None of us, though, should wish to turn our pulpits into platforms for individual candidates, which would besmirch the holiness of our missions.

According to a 2016 report from Christian polling organization LifeWay Research, nearly 80 percent of Americans think it is inappropriate for pastors to endorse a political candidate in church. When it comes to the question of tax exemption, however, respondents were split. Only 42 percent of respondents—and 33 percent of evangelical Christians— agreed that churches should lose their tax-exempt status for making public political endorsements.

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: Pastor Rafael Cruz. Photo by Michael Vadon, Flickr Creative Commons.