Although he has actively courted evangelicals in recent months, Donald Trump took a more distant approach last night as he pivoted toward the center during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. The only time he mentioned his evangelical supporters was to thank them for their support and to call for the repeal of a tax rule, known as the Johnson Amendment, that bars all non-profits, including churches, from campaigning for or against political candidates from the pulpit.
Trump said, “At this moment, I would like to thank the evangelical community who have been so good to me and so supportive. You have so much to contribute to our politics, yet our laws prevent you from speaking your minds from your own pulpits.
“An amendment pushed by Lyndon Johnson, many years ago, threatens religious institutions with a loss of their tax-exempt status if they openly advocate their political views.”
Then, in a departure from the prepared speech, Trump ad-libbed, “Their voice has been taken away.”
Returning to the prepared speech, he said, “I am going to work very hard to repeal that language and to protect free speech for all Americans. “
Although some believe that the electioneering ban has something to do with separation of church and state, it is actually based on an agreement that non-profits of all types make with the IRS. In 1954, Johnson, then a senator from Texas, pushed for the language for political reasons after a nonprofit foundation (incidentally not a religious organization) had supported his opponent and it was passed without much debate.
To obtain 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, applying organizations must represent that they will not participate in any political campaign on behalf of, or against, any candidate for political office. Failure to abide by the restriction could lead to the revocation of tax-exempt status.
Politicians would love to have churches campaigning for them. Not only would churches be able to claim “moral authority” for promoting “God’s chosen” candidate over another, but they could create an opportunity for campaign donors to deduct their political donations. As it stands, political campaign donations are not tax-deductible, but contributions to 501(c)(3) organizations can be deducted. If the ban were eliminated, a loophole would be created in the code allowing tax-deductible donations to churches to be used to advance political campaigns.
Large churches could bankroll entire political campaigns and, in turn, expect favorable treatment from their preferred candidates. Parishioners could expect to be fed a stream of political positions interspersed with sermons, and the preaching of the gospel could take on a distinctly red or blue flavor, depending on the congregation. Around election time, on any given Saturday or Sunday, church services would become local political conventions, and parishioners would spend the afternoon discussing the merits of their church’s decision to place a Trump banner on the wall just below the steeple.
Contrary to Trump’s representation, the voices of individual church members, or even church employees, have not “been taken away.” Instead, leaders may independently advocate for or against any candidates of their choosing. The only limitation is that they, like any other non-profits, cannot use their organizations as vehicles for doing so. Churches and charities are still welcome to speak truth to power on the larger issues of the day.
Most churches understand the 501(c)(3) limitations, but some churches do promote certain candidates in violation of the rule, sometimes as a form of protest. Enforcement actions are very rare. However, most pastors recognize the potential danger that campaigning could destroy their churches from the inside out, and while they may privately share their political opinions, they actively avoid campaigning on behalf of their churches and avoid the risk of alienating church members who do not share their opinions
Ultimately, the Johnson Amendment protects churches from themselves.
Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. John 18:36 9 (NIV)