As I write this, Congress is on the verge of passing a budget bill that would formally do away with the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits pastors from endorsing candidates from the pulpit.
Donald Trump made it a campaign issue to repeal that rule and recently signed an executive order demanding the IRS look the other way if pastors were accused of telling their congregations how to vote — but his order didn’t really have teeth to it. It’s the congressional repeal that would have the most impact here.
Still, the point is that Trump won a lot of evangelical Christian support in part because he perpetuated this idea that pastors were being muzzled. Sure, they could talk about issues all they wanted. Sure, they always had the option of playing politics directly by telling their congregations how to vote if they were willing to give up their tax exemptions. Sure, pastors could even say how they would personally vote as long as they weren’t telling their members what to do or using church facilities to help a candidate.
But they wanted to endorse candidates and not pay taxes, and Trump told them he’d let them do it.
This week, American Pastors Network President Sam Rohrer went on theDove TV’s Focus Today show to discuss the Johnson Amendment with host Perry Atkinson, and Rohrer was perfectly honest about what the Johnson Amendment repeal would change for pastors: Nothing. They can already say whatever they want.
While Atkinson hoped that repealing the Johnson Amendment would make pastors more willing to engage in politics, Rohrer declared that repealing the amendment probably won’t make a difference because pastors were “never muzzled” in the first place and already have great freedom to speak out on political issues but simply choose not to do so.“At the end of the day, I do not believe that [the Johnson Amendment] has been the reason for silent pulpits in America,” Rohrer said. “It is not the real reason. Because, in reality, any pastor who knew what the provision were knew that they, as a pastor, never lost their First Amendment right. Any pastor always, even according to the Johnson Amendment, could stand up and say, ‘I am personally supporting candidate X.’ What the only provision was that the organization, as a church, could not say, ‘We, as a church, endorse such and such a candidate’ or use the church facilities or the church copiers or the meetings room for a particular candidate. That’s all it was. So, in reality, the pastor himself was never muzzled on his ability to say what he wanted to say.”
He’s right. The Johnson Amendment wouldn’t make the pastors more free to speak their minds. No one’s stopping them from doing that now. But the Christian Persecution myth is strong and what are evangelicals if not perpetual victims?
That’s not to say we should just accept the repeal of the Johnson Amendment. The provision that Congress may soon pass could turn churches into new vessels for dark money in politics. Want to donate to a candidate anonymously? Just give money to your church and have them make a donation to a candidate. It would also turn every election year sermon into a giant campaign ad — which I would think even the most devout Christians would oppose — and push plenty of people out of the pews.
Repealing the Johnson Amendment is bad for politics and bad for religion. But as long as conservative Christians believe their free speech is being stifled, they will continue to push for the rule to go away… even though there’s a good chance it would backfire.
Rohrer fully admits that pastors can pretty much do whatever they want now. And remember: the restrictions in place affect all non-profits, not just churches.
Not that Trump will care. He doesn’t even understand the rule. And pastors are in no hurry to correct him.
(via Right Wing Watch)