The Johnson Amendment

Since 1954, it has officially been a law on the books that states that a church or nonprofit organization risks losing its tax exempt status if they openly campaign for or against particular political candidates.   This is one of the few laws that push back against what was the slow creep of religion into public policies in the 1950s.  After all, this was the time of the rise of Billy Graham, creating a national motto of “in god we trust“, and adding the phrase “under god” into the pledge of allegiance (one of my first entries on this blogging site talks about that point).  

The Johnson Amendment, so named because it was proposed and written by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, has been the bane of religious conservatives ever since.  They argue that having this law on the books somehow infringes on the freedom of speech of their pastors and have, for years, promoted what they call Pulpit Freedom Sunday in open defiance of the law.  

Their arguments are ridiculous on their surface.  Freedom of speech does not equate to the freedom to have a platform to speak as you wish and your desired audience is under no obligation to listen or take you seriously.  The Johnson Amendment is one of the few checks on the undeserved power already wielded by some churches on their gullible parishioners.   

And it’s quite toothless if you think about it.  A minister can’t stand in front of his church and make a sermon that says that “candidate A is against abortion while candidate B is for it, so you’re going to hell if you vote for candidate B.”  They can (and often do) make sermons talking about how evil abortion is and how god would send you straight to hell if you even think about taking the life of an innocent unborn baby…

I sometimes wonder how they reconcile this position against both Leviticus 27:6 and Numbers 3:15-16, both of which argue that someone isn’t even human until a month after they’re born.   I’ve got to admit that I’d love to see a candidate for political office use one or both of those bible verses when asked the question of “when does life begin?”

The Republican Party has long been allied with forces that seek to weaken, if not eliminate, the constitutional separation of church and state.  The constitution grants people the right to worship as they please.   They twist this right into claiming they have the freedom to impose their religious beliefs on others and then claim persecution when people push back.  

A few years ago in the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby vs Burwell, this argument went beyond the ridiculous when the court, expanding on a prior decision regarding corporate personhood, said that corporations can actually have their own religious beliefs and that those beliefs can be completely devoid of any factual basis or evidence because they had a “deeply held belief” that contraceptives are abortofascents and therefore shouldn’t be covered by employer insurance.   

The rational response to the Hobby Lobby ruling ought to be the repeal of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and negotiating a constitutional amendment that specifies the limits of corporate personhood.  (As taxpayers, corporations should be treated like people. In other arenas of life, such as actually having a birth and a death, they shouldn’t…)

But the less-than-rational modern incarnation of the GOP is eager to eliminate the Johnson Amendment now that they have control over both the legislative and executive branches of government.   While I think this is a bad idea — the amendment needs strengthening, not eliminating — part of me wants to encourage it.  

A repeal would free up the liberal churches too, from the same restraints.  Imagine if Martin Luther King had done overt politicking from his pulpit?  Or Jesse Jackson?  For every baptist or Pentecostal church preaching about fire and brimstone for voting the wrong way, imagine an AME, Methodist, or UCC church preaching about love and voting the right way.

Imagine an imam or a rabbi sermonizing about how to improve the American political process by breaking the stranglehold Christianity has on contemporary discourse.  

And it gets even more interesting than that.  Remember that the Johnson amendment applies to all non-profits, not just churches.  What would happen if the Freedom From Religion Foundation or Planned Parenthood or any of the scores of scientific educational foundations started doing this?   I think the only conservative non-church nonprofit that could come close to this level of clout, would be the NRA.

So it’s a double-edged sword.  I most definitely do not want to see the Johnson Amendment repealed unless it’s replaced with something with more teeth.   But if it is, I look forward to creating a “be careful what you wish for” mentality in the evangelicals who so vehemently want to see it go away entirely.