The proposed repeal of the so-called Johnson Amendment is being sold by Republicans – from Donald Trump on down – as a matter of religious freedom, but that’s a mischaracterization bordering on deceit.
In reality, outright repeal of that 1954 tax code change would complete the process, begun with the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, of ensuring that America’s richest people and corporations can buy, in total secrecy, whatever form of government they prefer.
And, in the process, churches would lose much more than they could gain.
If you thought the 2010 Citizens United decision legitimizing dark money political funding and birthing super PACs and billion-dollar campaigns was bad for democracy, wait until you see what happens when the George Soroses and Charles Kochs can deduct their political contributions on their tax returns, which full repeal would allow.
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The background: In 1954, then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson offered a tax law change saying that 501(c)3 groups – non-profit charities and churches – could not be involved directly in partisan politics, including endorsing candidates or groups of candidates. If they did, they would lose tax exempt status, meaning donors could no longer deduct contributions to them. It passed without controversy or debate.
Then, as now, charitable groups and most churches were primarily focused on their specific, defined missions and not involved in politics. Many, if not most, deliberately avoided partisanship in order not to offend potential contributors or members.
In the 1980s, as social issues such as abortion became political hot buttons, some religious groups complained that the law abridged their free speech rights, and the GOP took up the cause.
Outright repeal of the Johnson-inspired restrictions on 501(c)3 political spending would have an even broader negative effect than Citizens United on all non-profits and tax-exempt organizations, including churches, and on American democracy.
The nation’s nearly $400 billion charity effort succeeds because of three advantages: the nonprofits are exempt from most taxes; contributors can write off their contributions; the groups can keep the names of contributors confidential.
Imagine how quickly charities and churches of all sorts would be converted into de facto political parties – or even created out of whole cloth – if the nation’s biggest political spenders could launder their millions in a way that was, unlike many political action committee contributions, both secret and tax deductible.
Imagine how much pressure legitimate charities, from museums to support groups to foundations, would feel from politicians seeking their endorsements and their money. That’s trouble most of them can neither afford nor want.
Imagine how many donors to, say, art museums would decide instead to give to more politically oriented nonprofits if they could get the same tax write-offs plus political clout.
So why not simply exclude churches and keep the rest of the restrictions? To do that, Congress or the IRS would have to define what constitutes a church, and no thinking person, religious or not, should want that violation of the separation of church and state.
Churches inclined toward political ideology have been ignoring the law since the 1990s while the IRS and local tax authorities have looked the other way. It’s a small step from what some churches have been doing to outright political activity, but legalizing it through repeal carries far too high a byproduct price for everyone.
The repeal effort is another cynical abuse of religion, not a benefit to it.
Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.