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.