Why Repealing the Johnson Amendment is a Good Idea

At Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast, President Donald Trump vowed to “totally destroy the Johnson Amendment,” which bars churches and non-profit groups from endorsing or opposing political candidates. This move thrilled many evangelicals who see the legislation as an unconstitutional infringement on religious freedom. But it alarmed others who believe that removing the law would violate the separation of church and state. 

Here are some reasons why repealing this amendment is a good idea and consistent with the Constitution.

1. The Separation of Church and State Was Meant to Protect the Church, not the State.

Many people today believe our Founding Fathers erected a wall between church and state to protect the state from the church when the opposite is true. Interestingly, the phrase “separation of church and state” is not in the U.S. Constitution nor any of our nation’s founding documents. The phrase actually comes from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut. 

Jefferson had worked hard in his state of Virginia to separate the Anglican Church from government so that other religious denominations could operate without government penalty or intrusion. So when Jefferson used the phrase separation of church and state in his letter, he did so to reassure the Danbury Baptists that government, based on the First Amendment, could not regulate their activities.

2. The Johnson Amendment is Unconstitutional.

What the First Amendment­ actually says is, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech . . .”  In other words, Congress can’t promote one religion over others, nor can it restrict anyone’s religious practices or freedom of expression. 

The Johnson Amendment clearly violates the First Amendment by prohibiting pastors and non-profit groups from freely expressing their views of political candidates. And it makes the government the watchdog of the church and religious non-profits, something the Founding Fathers would have abhorred.

3. The Johnson Amendment Leads to Onerous and Partisan Government Intrusion.

In a shocking attempt to muzzle the religious community, a left-leaning, openly gay mayor of Houston in 2014 subpoenaed sermons of several pastors who opposed her transgender “bathroom bill.” The pastors had been speaking out against the bill and even circulating a petition against it.  So Mayor Annise Parker tried to shut them down.

This was a clear violation of the pastors’ constitutional rights, and threatened with legal action, the mayor backed down.  But the incident shows just how far politicians will go to try and intimidate pastors into silence. 

Not surprisingly, the original impetus for the Johnson Amendment was purely political. Then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson was upset that a nonprofit group was distributing campaign material supporting his challenger. So he introduced an amendment to Section 501c3 of the Internal Revenue Code, which Congress passed in 1954. From the very beginning, this legislation has been a weapon politicians use to further their interests.

4. Even if the Johnson Amendment is Repealed, Most Pastors Will Refrain From Endorsing Political Candidates.

According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of Americans believe churches should not endorse political candidates. And in my decades of experience in the church and Christian ministries, I have observed that most pastors have zero desire to endorse political candidates either. This will not change if the Johnson Amendment is repealed.

What will change is the atmosphere in the church and Christian non-profits. Currently, there’s fear among Christian leaders about inviting government scrutiny, especially since the IRS started targeting and harassing conservative groups. Many would rather avoid politics altogether than risk losing their non-profit status or attracting an audit. 

Sadly, this means many pastors and Christian groups simply avoid talking about politics altogether. This is tragic since equipping Christians to think biblically about all aspects of life is a primary job of Christian leaders. If the Johnson Amendment is repealed, pastors and Christian groups are more likely to address these important issues.

5. If a Truly Evil Politician Rises to Prominence, Following the Johnson Amendment Will Mean Abdicating Moral Leadership.

While most Americans do not want pastors endorsing or opposing political candidates now, I bet most would say that pastors in Nazi Germany should have openly opposed Hitler. Christians tend to view supporting particular candidates as a morally gray area. But certainly, there have been times in history when supporting a certain candidate or party was morally wrong. 

If the Johnson Amendment remains in place, pastors will be legally barred from following their consciences in that circumstance. That is simply un-American. Fundamentally, the Johnson Amendment is about restricting the freedom of the church. It’s about placing the state above the church. And the sooner it ends, the better.

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6 thoughts on “Why Repealing the Johnson Amendment is a Good Idea

  1. Joel Lefever

    Terrorist or True Believer?

    Joel Lefever

    February 3, 2017

    About fifteen years ago, I began searching for my ancestors. My mother’s Illinois farming families were easy to find because they had lived in just a couple of adjacent counties for several generations. My father’s family was, well, the opposite.

    At first I wasn’t even sure where they came from. One uncle thought Alsace-Lorraine, France, but another believed it was Brussels, Belgium. I did know that my great-grandfather’s name was Jules Lefebvre, but in Northern France the name is as common as John Smith. I was stuck.

    Then, in 2011, my cousin Shari sent me a box of postcards and newspaper clippings that had belonged to Jules. The box was full of answers. Jules was born in Izel-les-Hameaux, Pas-de-Calais, France, and his father, who became a coal miner, was named Charles Louis Lefevre. Pretty quickly I discovered that Charles Louis was born in Ruiselede, West-Flanders, Belgium in 1819. The Lefevre family had lived in West-Flanders for quite some time. They were Flemish linen weavers.

    Researching Belgian genealogy is possible from my home because the Belgian State Archives provides Internet access to Roman Catholic parish records. Recently, I traced my family to the region of Southern Flanders and the town of Mouscron, which sits on the border of West-Flanders and Hainaut in Belgium, and Nord in France. My seven-times great-grandfather Jacques Lefebvre was born there around 1635. From the few sketchy archival references that survive, Jacques’ mother’s family name was Castel, also from Mouscron.

    Before the 1650s, Parish records don’t exist for Mouscron’s Saint-Barthélémy Roman Catholic Church. In Flanders, state vital records where maintained by the church, but religious wars that started in the 1500s and lasted for over a century decimated the region, and destroyed much of the written record. The conflicts destroyed lives as well, sometimes in horrifying ways.

    The wars stemmed from the Protestant Reformation that influenced the thinking of large segments of the western European population. A complex movement, it sought to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Additionally, some rulers politically used the movement to curb the power of the Catholic Church, and establish their own Protestant states. Catholic states, such as Spain and France vehemently defended Catholicism. In the 1520s and 1530s, cities in Switzerland and the Holy Roman Empire began to experience “iconoclastic riots” in which (at least nominally) Protestant mobs attacked churches, convents and monasteries, destroying religious images and church decorations.

    The teachings of Jean Calvin, who was born in 1509 in Noyon, France (about 90 miles south Mouscron), began to influence Flanders in the 1540s. Ministers and laymen trained in the new faith held illegal meetings in the countryside away from the jurisdiction of larger cities. The meetings attracted thousands. Fearing the numbers of people attracted to the radical Reformed, authorities cracked down.

    Jean Castel, of the Castel family of Mouscron in my genealogy, was born there around 1529 at the beginning of the ideological influence of the Reformation in Flanders. He embraced the Reformed faith and “devoted himself entirely to the service of God.” Castel rejected the “idolatry” of the Catholic Church, believing that the paintings, statues, and imagery were being worshiped by the Catholic faithful. He attempted to convert his wife, but when she steadfastly held to her Roman Catholic beliefs, Jean left his family and traveled to Germany.

    He was radicalized (to use the contemporary term) in Frankfurt-am-Main, a Free Imperial City that became Protestant in 1533. In the 1530s Calvinist refugees from England, Flanders, and what became The Netherlands began flocking to Frankfurt for the sanctuary it offered, and the Reformed education they could acquire. Frankfurt was a Lutheran city, but Calvinists were allowed to practice their faith until it was outlawed in the 1590s.

    Jean Castel remained in Frankfurt for a time, but returned to Mouscron, intending to bring his family back to Germany. His wife still remained Catholic, and because of her “obstinacy,” he again left her in Mouscron, but this time took their children to Frankfurt, “to instruct them in the fear of the Lord.”

    After two or three years, Jean heard that Reformed churches were being established in Southern Flanders, and he returned home. He traveled through France, and discovering his wife had died, Jean married a widow of the Reformed faith who lived at Varennes, near Jean Calvin’s birthplace of Noyon. Upon returning to Mouscron, Jean Castel preached at nighttime conventicles (illegal services) held in the neighboring town of Tourcoing.

    Authorities from the nearby City of Lille arrested Jean Castel in 1565. He was in grave danger – Lille had executed its first Reformed heretics in 1533. Jean was interrogated, most likely tortured, and tried for heresy. At first he retracted what he had been preaching, but then found the courage to affirm his Reformed beliefs.

    Judges, angered by his changing statements, pronounced a double sentence of execution, and instead of the usual death by beheading, he was condemned to being burned alive. According to one account “the executioner increased the torment by moderating the fire.” Jean Castel died a martyr’s death on November 13, 1656, one of more than a thousand heretics who were executed in Flanders by the mid-1500s. He was thirty-six years old.

    Nine months later, in August of 1566, Mouscron’s Saint-Barthélémy church was attacked during the “Iconoclastic Fury” that swept Flanders and The Netherlands that summer. Mobs, under the banner of Protestantism, vandalized hundreds of properties belonging to the Catholic Church and clergy, destroying thousands of religious artworks from Valenciennes in the South, to Groningen in the North.

    The iconoclastic riots resulted in little loss of life, but infuriated by the desecration of the sacred, Philip II, ruler of Spain and the Habsburg Netherlands, sent the Duke of Alba to restore order. An escalating series of events led to the 80 Years’ War between Spain and the Seventeen Provinces of the Lowlands, including the town of Mouscron. Hundreds of thousands died in the nearly century-long conflict. Most of Flanders remained Catholic, Protestants in Belgium and French Flanders lost, and Jean Castel’s sacrifice is mostly forgotten.

    Through religious war, Mouscron continued to shelter heretical families for many decades. Members of the Castel family were still identified as Protestant in the 1740s, even though the area officially was Roman Catholic and Protestants persecuted until they finally were emancipated in the 1780s.

    *****

    There are eerie parallels between the story of Jean Castel of Mouscron, whose family appears in my ancestry, and my unusual family narrative. My great-grandfather, Jules, who was raised Roman Catholic, married Dorothea Knauth, a descendant of French Huguenots who fled to Germany in the early 1600s. Jules left the Catholic faith in 1910, and ever since our family has been Protestant. Ormand Lefever, my father, was baptized and confirmed in a congregation that now is part of the United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination.

    When my father was about eighteen, he rejected the childhood faith that he viewed as too liberal and devoid of biblical understanding, and became a fundamentalist – a Born-Again Christian. He earnestly tried to persuade family members to convert to fundamentalism, but none did. When the minister from his childhood church heard that he was witnessing to an aunt, the minister told my father, “Stay away from my parishioners.” Another of his aunts thought that he had become mentally unstable. My father was mentally stable, but perhaps made others uncomfortable with the religious intensity that academics such as Harvard’s Steven Pinker suggest can be genetically heritable.

    Even with his fundamentalist beliefs, my father was not prone to anger or violence. After the war he attended the Grand Rapids Baptist College in Michigan, and the Columbia Bible College in South Carolina. He studied to be a minister, and for a short time preached at a Baptist church in Iowa, but had difficulty effectively relating to members of the congregation. He also did not preach the fire-and-brimstone sermons that some congregants expected. He left the ministry and earned a teaching degree.

    My parents met at college and eventually my sister and I were born. Our parents shared religious intensity and a desire to “serve the Lord,” but became teachers in the “secular” Illinois public schools. In the early 1970s, my sister and I attended the public school in our Illinois town. Uneasy with the education that we were receiving, worried by drug use in our town, and angered that the school administration was forcing my father to participate in the Illinois Education Association, our family left Illinois. We moved 900 miles to North Carolina and my parents began teaching in fundamentalist Christian schools.

    Ideally, fundamentalist Christianity would be a loving world emanating the light of the Gospels, but I’ve observed in some of its leaders a dark authoritarianism, and in some of its followers self-righteous judgment. For over a decade our family was in that world, and the low pay my parents received nearly bankrupted us. When my parents finally left fundamentalist school teaching, they admitted that some true believers treated us more harshly than the non-believers we knew.

    My father’s commitment to a fundamentalist fringe may have led to his persecution had we lived in a theocracy. In Flanders of the 1500s, the word “fundamentalist” in my father’s narrative would have read “heretical” and he would have been a candidate for execution, like Jean Castel. In the United States of the 2000s, most Protestant fundamentalists have little reason to resort to violence, nevertheless in my father’s story, if the words “Baptist” and “Bible school” are replaced with “Muslim” and “madrasa”, my father’s name likely could be placed on a terrorist list.

    We live in the United States of America, where no one really cared what my father believed, or sought to punish him for his beliefs. Our Founders knew European history, and realized how dangerous it was to combine religion and governing. The brilliant First Amendment notion that Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” has protected the United States from descent into religious warfare for over two centuries. The notion protects religious minorities from the religious majority, and also saves the majority from itself.

    Today, our government seems to be forgetting the necessities of religious plurality and secular government. We must re-affirm our commitment to our Constitution and the First Amendment. We appear to be rushing towards the same, sad, destructive cycle of faith-based fear, hatred, and war. We must learn history’s lessons and find another way.

    References Consulted:

    Alphonse-Marie Coulon, Histoire de Mouscron, II, Courtrai, 1890.

    Jean Crespin, Histoire des vrays Tesmoins de la verite de l’Evangile, Genève, 1570.

    Robert S. DuPlessis, Lille and the Dutch Revolt, Cambridge, 1991.

    Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate, New York, 2002.

  2. J. Lowry

    As a matter of law, the Johnson Amendment applies only to 501(c)(3) organizations. This is why so many organizations organize simultaneously as both charity and not.

    Also, as a matter of constitutional law, no church can be taxed or barred from political speech. No church need file as a 501(c)(3) organization.

    The difference is in risks. If an organization seeks and receives 501(c)(3) status then it is less likely to face legal challenges as to its status, although it may face fines for violations of the code. Such a church would not lose status as a church. This is why many lawyers and CPA’s advise organizations that may not pass muster as churches if challenged to take the 501(c)(3) route.

    Most established churches rely on the Establishment clause alone. This may expose them to a challenge from the government as to their true nature. The risk is loss of status as well as legal fees.

    So, if your organization is truly a church, then rely on the Establishment clause protections and also be as political as you want. Most major churches have been very political over decades of continuous religious practice and service. The “churches” that only want money for political speech or advocacy are more questionable and may, in fact be political organizations that share common religious views.

    BTW, the IRS has excellent information and there are many scholarly histories as well as legal reviews. Several Christian advocacy sites make exactly the points I made above.

    • Yes, I’ve heard others argue that churches should not file as 501c3’s for the reasons you mention. In fact, I hosted an Up For Debate program on whether churches should incorporate at all. It’s a valid discussion, but the reality is that many pastors don’t know the law. Also, the problem isn’t just for churches, but also for religious non-profits like Moody Radio. I hate that the government is telling us what we can and can’t say on air.

  3. The Johnson Amendment is not an unconstitutional restriction on free speech because no organization has a constitutional right to be avail itself of the tax benefits of Section 501(c)(3). Every church in America is free to engage in political speech; it simply can’t do so and also claim the benefits of Section 501(c)(3). After all, the Johnson Amendment does not generally apply to religious non-profits. Rather, it applies only to religious non-profits that elect to qualify themselves as a certain subclass of such entities under Section 501(c)(3).

    • Evan, it’s kind of a catch-22 for religious non-profits. I talked to an executive of a religious for-profit organization recently who said his company is considering of switching to non-profit. They’re happy to pay taxes. But if they’re classified as a for-profit organization, then the government doesn’t recognize them as a religious organization and they no longer qualify for religious exemptions, like hiring only those who adhere to their beliefs. So this is more complicated than many realize.

      When it comes to churches, though, many could not exist if they paid taxes. They exist entirely on the basis of donations and often operate on a shoestring budget. So telling them to pay taxes is tantamount to saying stop existing.

  4. Bill

    Godless politicians and their supporters clearly do not wish for their wicked agendas to be examined in the light of God’s Word and exposed for what it is. They would like to deny us the right to vote and would if they could. Preachers and people in the pews pay their income taxes like everybody else. There is no reason to tax us again by taxing churches. To do so is simply a form of harassment and an attempt to silence us. Tithes and offering belong to the LORD. Government crosses the line of separation of church and state when they put their hands into it and in doing so they are in effect robbing God Himself. Apparently this rule only applies to conservative-leaning churches not to the liberal ones so in that sense it is also discriminatory.

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