Back in May, Donald Trump signed an executive order that supposedly weakened the Johnson Amendment. While it told the IRS to look the other way in cases where pastors were endorsing candidates from the pulpit in violation of non-profit rules, it really had no teeth to it (since the IRS was barely taking action already).
However, a budget bill being considered by the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations included an amendment forbidding the IRS from devoting a single penny to investigating claims of those violations.
That bill hasn’t passed yet — welcome to our GOP-run government — which means there’s still time to remove the amendment. And now more than 4,000 religious leaders from every state have signed a letter urging Congress to keep the Johnson Amendment in place. It was spearheaded by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
The letter honestly reads less like a message to members of Congress and more like a rebuke to every conservative Christian leader who has urged Trump and House Republicans to repeal the Amendment.
Faith leaders are called to speak truth to power, and we cannot do so if we are merely cogs in partisan political machines. The prophetic role of faith communities necessitates that we retain our independent voice. Current law respects this independence and strikes the right balance: houses of worship that enjoy favored tax-exempt status may engage in advocacy to address moral and political issues, but they cannot tell people who to vote for or against. Nothing in current law, however, prohibits me from endorsing or opposing political candidates in my own personal capacity.
Changing the law to repeal or weaken the “Johnson Amendment” — the section of the tax code that prevents tax-exempt nonprofit organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates — would harm houses of worship, which are not identified or divided by partisan lines. Particularly in today’s political climate, engaging in partisan politics and issuing endorsements would be highly divisive and have a detrimental impact on congregational unity and civil discourse.
While atheist groups aren’t represented in this project, the Secular Coalition for America and 10 of its member groups sent a letter to the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations last month saying roughly the same thing (even though atheists don’t have houses of worship). The atheists added the the proposed repeal was also problematic because it gave churches — but not secular non-profits — a way to endorse candidates without losing tax exempt status. That was a potential lawsuit waiting to happen.
Will the faith leaders’ letter actually do anything? I’m not optimistic. This GOP-led Congress hasn’t shown they give a damn what people actually want. They’re guided purely by the warped ideology of their extremist base. If Republican Congress members were so eager to destroy the health care system for millions of Americans for no good reason — despite all the opposition and evidence against the GOP plan — this seems like small potatoes.
But in terms of optics, saying that more than 4,000 religious leaders oppose a Johnson Amendment repeal certainly hurts the messaging. Only a fraction of that number are pushing for the repeal, wrongly arguing that it’ll be good for everybody. It’s kind of like how the National Center for Science Education responded when a fringe group of Christian scientists began pushing for Intelligent Design in public schools (or urging schools to “teach the controversy”). The groups doing that always seemed to have a lot of members with impressive credentials.
But the NCSE countered that with “Project Steve” in which scientists named Steve (or Stephanie) could come out in support of evolution. It’s not that science is decided by popularity, but it was an effective way to show that no school district should be misled by a vocal minority of people pushing an idea that’s rejected by the majority of experts.
Considering how much this President cares about optics, this letter from thousands of religious leaders could make a difference.
(Screenshot via YouTube. Thanks to Brian for the link. Portions of this article were published earlier)