Op-Ed: How Abolishing the Johnson Amendment Would Harm Religious Liberty
Last week at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, the newly inaugurated President of the United States repeated his campaign vow to repeal the Johnson Amendment, the 1954 provision in the U.S. tax code that prohibits all 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations from endorsing political candidates.
What is the Johnson Amendment?
The Johnson Amendment was an IRS tax reform bill that was successfully passed in Congress by Senator Lyndon Johnson in 1954, the same man who would later become President in 1963 following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Churches can invite a candidate to speak at their local church if it invites the opposing candidate; and ministries, houses of worship, denominations and religious individuals can speak out on the moral and spiritual issues of the day, including getting involved in ballot referenda. But the Johnson Amendment is a prohibition on churches and other houses of worship to prevent churches from publicly favoring or endorsing one candidate over another. This includes the strict prohibition on financing them or organizing to campaign for them.
Just to be clear, the attempt to repeal the Johnson Amendment is not about restoring "free speech" but rather about politicians receiving tax-deductible campaign financing from churches in return for giving churches unprecedented political power. As I explain below, I believe that repealing this Amendment will be instrumental in creating the prophetic combination of church and state that we as Adventists have been warning about for many years, and I am extremely concerned about where this is heading.
A Divisive Proposition
If you donate money to your favorite candidate for public office, that donation is not tax-deductible. But under one of the bills in Congress that would do away with the Johnson Amendment, churches could use up to 25 percent of their church budget to endorse candidates and campaign for them. That means that if your church decided to campaign for a candidate, a significant portion of your offerings could go straight to a political candidate that your pastor or church board decided to support.
Donations will begin to pour into churches that will choose to take on a political mission, as big-time donors try to find ways to "launder" their otherwise taxable campaign donations, and money-grubbing politicians will be knocking on the doors of every church to capture large amounts of "blessed" campaign money.
Even putting the prophetic warning aside, practically speaking, as people who live in the real world, we all hold political views, and there is a good chance that you know somebody in your local church that you disagree with when it comes to politics. Can you imagine what it would be like if your church made an awkward choice to endorse a slate of either Democrats or Republicans? Imagine the potluck discussion! It would make social media seem tame in comparison.
And if you think the current political climate has divided this nation, just wait until pastors and congregations start to argue over which candidate will get 25 percent of their church's money. Saturday and Sunday mornings may never be the same!
While many organizations, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church, speak out boldly on the issues of the day and get involved in ballot referenda related to policies that could affect us, the repeal of the Johnson Amendment crosses the line because it involves endorsing or opposing particular candidates for office. These are the people who need more money than ever before to run their campaigns, and who will come knocking on the door of your church asking for an endorsement.
Gutting Church Coffers
Now, it is easy to think that nonprofit organizations would love to be able to use the power of the purse to influence candidates, but it would actually diminish giving and put church missions at risk. Last week, Tim Delaney, president and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits released the following statement:
“Nonprofits are already free to exercise their First Amendment rights to advocate for their missions. Allowing political operatives to push for endorsements would put nonprofits in a position where they become known as Democratic charities or Republican charities and put missions at risk.
“Furthermore, those who donate to nonprofits want those contributions to go toward advancing the mission, not toward advancing the careers of politicians or lining the pockets of political consultants. Getting involved in supporting or opposing candidates will have a chilling effect on contributions on which many nonprofits rely.” (https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/article/national-council-of-nonprofits-opposes-latest-efforts-politicize-charitable-nonprofits-and)
With the repeal of the Johnson Amendment now on the table, either by congressional action, or an executive order of the President to the IRS not to enforce it, the Adventist Church is taking a very serious look at this issue, and we plan on following Ellen White’s counsel to steer clear of divisive political endorsements. But there is little doubt that the ability to use tax-free donations to endorse candidates will give the churches huge amounts of political power – and this is not a good thing.
The Temptation of Power and a Prophetic Warning
In fact, I would go as far as to say that without the Johnson Amendment, some churches will gain huge amounts of political power and will manipulate, dominate, and eventually control the government at all levels through the electoral and policy-making process.
A lot of good Christian people probably think that it would be wonderful if their church had more pull in Washington, but this movement has serious prophetic implications that many people will not see until it is too late. Note Ellen White’s prophetic observation in The Great Controversy regarding Revelation 13:11-15:
“In order for the United States to form an image of the beast [that is, in the likeness of Papal Rome during a 1,260-year period in which the Church manipulated, dominated and controlled both kings and emperors], the religious power [or “powers”] must so control the civil government that the authority of the state will also be employed by the church to accomplish her own ends.” (The Great Controversy, page 443, commentary added.)
And what happens when the church gets this kind of power?
“Whenever the church has obtained secular power, she has employed it to punish dissent from her doctrines. Protestant churches that have followed in the steps of Rome by forming alliance with worldly powers, have manifested a similar desire to restrict liberty of conscience. An example of this is given in the long-continued persecution of dissenters by the Church of England. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, thousands of non-conformist ministers were forced to leave their churches, and many, both of pastors and people, were subjected to fine, imprisonment, torture, and martyrdom.” The Great Controversy, page 443.
Could that happen in America? Will churches seek to use the power of the state to punish those who dissent from their doctrines? We can already see that some churches would love to have this power and White warns us that we will one day experience similar, if not much more severe, persecution in America. That is why this matters and why we need to work now to preserve liberty of conscience.
Repealing the Johnson Amendment is not about giving pastors “freedom of speech.” Pastors are already able to speak to issues. It is about giving churches the financial power to influence elections using tax-deductible donations. When it is gone, pity the politician who does not have a large congregation willing to fund a political campaign and who has to rely on traditional taxable donations.
An Appeal to Christ's Kingdom
Before 1954, American churches were fairly disparate, disunited, and pretty much politically isolated, but today Evangelical Protestants and Catholics are very much united on many issues—issues that even we can and do agree with regarding shared concerns. This is, therefore, shaping up to be a prophetically explosive trend. If we fail to ascertain the larger prophetic picture at stake here, we will fail to be the voice of prophetic warning in our otherwise well-meaning attempts to champion and preserve religious freedom, which includes not only the constitutional guarantee to the free exercise of religion, but also the constitutional guarantee that church and state will remain separate.
Once the Johnson Amendment is gone, politicians who want to maintain power will be asking large churches to commit their resources to their elections, and church members will feel religiously compelled to support them. The resulting centers of combined religious and political influence will become the most powerful entities in America, capable of calling on politicians to enforce their plans just as White predicted in The Great Controversy.
Do not fall for the hype that the Johnson Amendment is necessary to restore your pastor's freedom of speech and see the attempt to repeal it for what it is – a plan by politicians to grab your tax-deductible offering money. Politicians would love to be able to claim a church's stamp of approval as "God's favorite candidate" in return for giving churches more political power. And yes, I believe we are watching the seeds being planted in America for the combined church-state power that we have been warned about in Revelation 13.
With tremendous events happening around us on a nearly daily basis, we are the front row of history. We also have the benefit of Bible prophecy and we know where this is going, but that knowledge is not enough. We need to work to preserve liberty of conscience so that we can continue to preach, not a message of political power, but the gospel of Jesus Christ who taught us that His Kingdom is not of this world.