Should churches and other nonprofits be allowed to participate in political campaigns and endorse or attack candidates? President Donald Trump thinks so, and recently vowed to “totally destroy” the law banning such activity.
If this appears a violation of America’s founding principles, consider that for most of our history there was no such prohibition. It began with the 1954 “Johnson Amendment” (JA), which wasn’t even born of principle. Rather, then-senator Lyndon Johnson pushed the legislation to prevent a wealthy opponent from using a nonprofit against him in a senatorial election.
Moreover, as commentator Cal Thomas points out, “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.” Note that slavery was so “political” in antebellum America that it created a political rift helping spark our bloodiest conflict.
The JA is actually un-American. It curtails freedom of speech, the second right mentioned in our Constitution’s very First Amendment, only preceded by freedom of religion. Isn’t it ironic, then, that we limit religious institutions’ freedom of speech?
A common response is, “If churches don’t pay taxes, they shouldn’t be involved in politics.” Yet this smacks of a free-speech version of a poll tax. Furthermore, if the principle is sound, why limit it to organizations? A great number of Americans not only don’t pay taxes, but actually are on the dole. Perhaps they, too, should have to buy a place at the table of political discourse.
There should be only one major requirement for a nonprofit’s enjoyment of tax-free status: that it actually is nonprofit.
The reality is that the government has gotten intimately involved in the business of sin and even sacraments.
The JA also corrupts our system—by encouraging dishonesty. Consider entities such as Barack Obama’s Trinity United Church of Christ, where Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Fr. Michael Pfleger spewed venom; the Christian Coalition; and NARAL Pro-Choice America. Sure, they may be “non-partisan” in letter, but what of spirit?
They all strongly push ideologies closely associated with certain politicians and parties; it’s pretense, a wink and a nod. A recent example was a sermon I personally heard in which the left and right hands were contrasted metaphorically—the preacher then concluded by saying it was time to help the right one.
Must we reduce our clergy to politicians speaking in code?
There’s also the point that the JA, as Thomas writes, “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.”
Is this a surprise? Just as the JA was born of Johnson’s political ambitions, is it realistic to think it won’t be enforced based on the prevailing political biases of the powers-that-be?
To a degree, support for the ahistorical JA is fueled by misconception. For example, NJ.com writes that, in part, the “reluctance to campaign from the pulpit is rooted in the broad notion of separation of church and state.” But this reflects a separation of news and historical knowledge.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote of the “separation” in an 1802 letter to a group of Baptists in Danbury, CT (no, the phrase isn’t in the Constitution), he referred only to a “wall” that separated, and protected, the states from federal-government intrusion. The idea was to keep the central government out of religion—not religion out of government. In fact, Congress opened with prayers starting at its very inception in 1789.
Another common misconception is that “churches shouldn’t be involved in politics, period.” The truth is they can’t help but be involved in politics. Even if you don’t agree that politics is ever and always the manifestation of moral differences in public life, the fact is that as soon as the government inserts itself in something, it’s political. And with our big government now involved in most everything—most everything is political.
Abortion is an obvious example. What issue is more political, with it inspiring endless legislative and judicial wrangling and marches in our nation’s capital? Yet how many issues are more central to most churches’ moral teachings?
Delving deeper, the reality is that the government has gotten intimately involved in the business of sin and even sacraments. Marriage was a church Sacrament before it was a government institution, yet now we’ve had court battles over it.
Then, how about lust? In 2012, Barack Obama introduced his contraception mandate, ostensibly necessary because the world’s Sandra Flukes couldn’t afford $10 a month to finance their favored recreation. He even tried imposing it on the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of Catholic nuns, which would mean they’d have to fund the violation of their own teachings. Given this, is it fair to prohibit the Catholic Church from directly counterattacking against politicians, even as those politicians are attacking the Church’s religious freedom?
We could enumerate the Seven Deadly Sins and perhaps find 70 areas of Big Brother involvement, but is it necessary? Why, even gluttony became a state issue with Michelle Obama’s school-lunch engineering, ex-N.Y.C. mayor Michael Bloomberg’s large soda ban and a 2008 Mississippi bill that would have prohibited restaurants from serving fat people (ultimately, the idea was too fatheaded to make it out the capitol building’s doors).
In truth, if nonprofits couldn’t talk about politics, they could be reduced to talking about the weather (though the climate-change agenda makes even this questionable). Of course, they will, and do, talk about politics—one way or another.
This gets at the real issue. History is replete with examples of those, such as French seer Nostradamus, who expressed their ideas in obscure language for fear of punishment. Does it align with America’s founding principles to say that you can discuss politics—just don’t do it honestly?
Selwyn Duke (@SelwynDuke) has written for The Hill, The American Conservative, WorldNetDaily and American Thinker. He has also contributed to college textbooks published by Gale – Cengage Learning, has appeared on television and is a frequent guest on radio.