At the National Prayer Breakfast last week, President Trump promised to “totally destroy” the so-called “Johnson Amendment,” a law that prohibits churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates at the risk of losing their tax-exempt status.
Politifact.com gives the background on how the amendment became law: “The restriction was championed by (Lyndon Johnson) in 1954 when Johnson was a U.S. senator running for re-election. A conservative nonprofit group that wanted to limit the treaty-making ability of the president produced material that called for electing his primary opponent, millionaire rancher-oilman Dudley Dougherty, and defeating Johnson. There was no church involved.
“Johnson, then Democratic minority leader, responded by introducing an amendment to Section 501c(3) of the federal tax code dealing with tax-exempt charitable organizations, including groups organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, literacy and educational purposes, or to prevent cruelty to children or animals. It said, in effect, that if you want to be absolved from paying taxes, you couldn’t be involved in partisan politics.”
Conservatives have argued that the Johnson Amendment limits the free speech of pastors and ignores the history of the nation. They also claim the law is applied unevenly, especially when it comes to African-American churches, which have a long history of inviting mostly Democratic political candidates to speak in their churches and on occasion endorsing them without having their tax-exempt status challenged by the IRS.
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Opponents of the amendment have a point, but there is a larger one.
From the founding of the nation, through the Civil War when fiery pro- and anti-slavery sermons were heard from pulpits, to Prohibition, to contemporary examples, the ordained have played active roles in the nation’s political and social life. Pastors should be as free as anyone to speak their minds on political issues, but should they do so from the pulpit? By focusing more on the temporal than the eternal there is the risk of diluting the power in their primary message.
If I go to a political rally, I expect to hear political speeches. When I go to church, I am expecting soul food.
Yes, Congress should repeal the law prohibiting preachers from talking about politics from the pulpit while passing a new law protecting the consciences of believers. The larger question is: Should preachers preach on politics and to what end?
Muslims would have to be included. How comfortable would those conservatives now campaigning for repeal of the Johnson law be if some imams began preaching death to America and endorsing Muslim candidates for political office?
Whether the Johnson law is repealed, or not, evangelicals have a more powerful message than partisan politics. Senate Chaplain Barry Black referenced that power by quoting from an old hymn at last Thursday’s prayer breakfast: “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” He said that includes government institutions.
Isn’t that a better message for conservative Christians to preach than the sinking sand of partisan politics?
Cal Thomas, a columnist with Tribune Content Agency, appears in Opinion on Wednesdays.