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The ’Splainer: What is the Johnson Amendment and why did Trump target it?

President Trump prepares to sign the Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty during the National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House on May 4, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Carlos Barria

(RNS) The ’Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which the RNS staff gives you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at the water cooler.

President Trump has signed an executive order gutting enforcement of a law known as the Johnson Amendment. In his remarks before the signing Thursday (May 4), the president said: “Under my administration, free speech does not end at the steps of a cathedral or a synagogue or any other house of worship. … We are giving our churches their voices back.”

What is the Johnson Amendment and why were many religious leaders eager to see it scrapped — while many others wanted it preserved?

What is the Johnson Amendment?

The Johnson Amendment is a 1954 law signed by then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower and named for then-Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was not interested in religious organizations when he proposed — and pushed through in typical Johnson heavy-handed fashion — the amendment, but he was hoping to silence two nonprofit groups campaigning against him as “a closet Communist.”

The Johnson Amendment prohibits registered 501(c)(3) organizations — which include some religious congregations but also other nonprofits — from endorsing political candidates and participating in political campaigns, at the risk of losing their nonprofit status.

Thursday’s executive order doesn’t repeal the Johnson Amendment — which is what candidate Trump promised numerous times and President Trump promised to do as recently as the Feb. 2 National Prayer Breakfast. Only Congress can do that. But it advises the IRS not to enforce it.

Did the amendment work?

It depends on whom you ask. The IRS investigated Johnson Amendment cases only a handful of times, including once against a New York church that purchased newspaper ads opposing the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 and once against a California church where a pastor preached an anti-war sermon in 2004 that specifically called out presidential candidates. Both incidents occurred just before presidential elections.

But many critics of the Johnson Amendment say the law’s true power is as a deterrent. It works like a gag rule, they say, preventing clergy from exercising their full freedom of expression by tacitly threatening them and their organizations with loss of their tax-exempt status. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a Christian organization that heralded Thursday’s executive order, called the Johnson Amendment “overly broad” and said it had been used to censor speech.


READ: Religious liberty executive order draws mixed reviews


But plenty of other people are unhappy with Trump’s executive order, including many religious leaders and free speech advocates. Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, warns politicking from the pulpit may come at the cost of a church’s “prophetic witness — its ability to speak truth to power and not risk being co-opted by the government.”

Alan Brownstein, a law professor at the University of California, Davis, boiled it down to this in The Atlantic magazine last year: “Pastors can say whatever they want, as can anyone else. The question is whether a tax-exempt institution can say whatever it wants and retain its tax-exempt status, and whether the pastor as an official can use his or her position in the tax-exempt institution to engage in electioneering.”

If the amendment is rarely enforced, why is the executive order a big deal?

As historian Kevin Baker said in The New York Times, candidate Trump’s promise to scrap the amendment was one of the main reasons evangelicals and other religious conservatives voted for him, “the most openly irreligious major-party presidential candidate in our history.”

“Jerry Falwell Jr. provided the answer in his singularly graceless speech at the Republican National Convention,” Baker writes, and then quotes Falwell:

“Mr. Trump has added a plank to this party’s platform to repeal I.R.S. rules sponsored by Lyndon Johnson in 1954 barring churches and nonprofits from expressing political free speech. … Trust me, the repeal of the Johnson Amendment will create a huge revolution for conservative Christians and for free speech.”

Where do Americans stand on the issue?

The public has shown little enthusiasm for politics in the pulpit. A 2016 LifeWay poll found that only 19 percent of Americans agree with the statement “it is appropriate for pastors to publicly endorse political candidates during a church service,” and a 2013 Pew Research Center survey that found two-thirds of Americans think clergy should not endorse political candidates.


READ: Most churchgoers are hearing politics from the pulpit: Report


 

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

13 Comments

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  • The Christian Right has promoted the idea that the Johnson amendment was unfair, anti-Christian and rawly partisan legislation, when actually it is a time-tested, eminently sensible and utterly bi-partisan bit of federal tax policy.

    In 1954, Lyndon Johnson was a freshman Senator in a chamber organized by
    the Republicans, although party balance shifted several times. The
    House was also controlled by the Republicans and the President was a
    Republican. What is the evidence that a freshman senator from the minority party “pushed
    through in typical Johnson heavy-handed fashion — the amendment” ?

  • I for one have no interest in any pronouncement of Trump’s on the subject of the Johnson Amendment because it was already dead in the water before he was ever elected. It will never survive a constitutional challenge should it ever reach the SCOTUS.

  • God save the Queen and the central banking nobility. George Soros was eating over. A string got caught in his teeth and out popped Camilla’s prince Charles. The tri-laterals are painting Obama’s hair technocratic grey.Expand text… By this time next year, he’ll be fully automated. We’re scheduled to be obsolete by 2040. If the drapes don’t match the shag carpet, does the carpet turn technocratic grey?

    They’re putting up like a thousand Ba’al arches here, there, everywhere! “I’m coming out for the whole world to see” and the next thing “I’M GOING TO SUCK ON YOU LIKE A BUCKET OF TICKS FOR ETERNITY!”.

    The McGuffin is spiking humanity. The setup hero is Barack. The villain is humanity. Hillary is the anti-Christ.

    You’re gonna die of Lyme disease in denial unless you untie your tubes you tied in your commie core teens and join Team America. Hillary was last in line for brains. The ones she’s got are rotten and insane.

    On top of the Nazi pyramid, it’s a pedo death cult. Hillary shattered the glass ceiling and next time Obama sits on your face, you’re going to find out King Obola doesn’t love you.

  • Albert Pike’s letter to Mazzini, dated August 15, 1871:

    “The First World War must be brought about in order to permit the Illuminati to overthrow the power of the Czars in Russia and of making that country a fortress of atheistic Communism. The divergences caused by the “agentur” (agents) of the Illuminati between the British and Germanic Empires will be used to foment this war. At the end of the war, Communism will be built and used in order to destroy the other governments and in order to weaken the religions.”

    “The Second World War must be fomented by taking advantage of the differences between the Fascists and the political Zionists. This war must be brought about so that Nazism is destroyed and that the political Zionism be strong enough to institute a sovereign state of Israel in Palestine. During the Second World War, International Communism must become strong enough in order to balance Christendom, which would be then restrained and held in check until the time when we would need it for the final social cataclysm.”

    “The Third World War must be fomented by taking advantage of the differences caused by the “agentur” of the “Illuminati” between the political Zionists and the leaders of Islamic World. The war must be conducted in such a way that Islam (the Moslem Arabic World) and political Zionism (the State of Israel) mutually destroy each other. Meanwhile the other nations, once more divided on this issue will be constrained to fight to the point of complete physical, moral, spiritual and economical exhaustion…We shall unleash the Nihilists and the atheists, and we shall provoke a formidable social cataclysm which in all its horror will show clearly to the nations the effect of absolute atheism, origin of savagery and of the most bloody turmoil. Then everywhere, the citizens, obliged to defend themselves against the world minority of revolutionaries, will exterminate those destroyers of civilization, and the multitude, disillusioned with Christianity, whose deistic spirits will from that moment be without compass or direction, anxious for an ideal, but without knowing where to render its adoration, will receive the true light through the universal manifestation of the pure doctrine of Lucifer, brought finally out in the public view. This manifestation will result from the general reactionary movement which will follow the destruction of Christianity and atheism, both conquered and exterminated at the same time.”

    Judah Benjamin was the first Jewish Senator, Jefferson Davis’s best gay Jewish buddy, Sec. of State, Defense Minister, and of course his Treasury Sec.. Mr. Benjamin made Albert Pike a General. Ran off to England at the end of the Civil War and pretty much became the best lawyer in England overnight – nothing prior to that gave any indication of such intelligence. During the Civil War, Mr. Benjamin was going to visit Mr. Rothschild in France and England while trying to get England to invade from Canada and France invade from Mexico. Thank God, Czar Alexander got involved with a fleet on the east and west coast but Mr. Rothschild response was trying to kill Czar Alexander seven times and the Bolshevik revolution. The Jews ran the slave trade and most of the southern slave owners were Catholics….in 1860, the Rothschilds openly became the Vatican banker. Albert Pike hired the John Wilkes gang and one of the gang members became a Vatican Bishop. History books don’t give US Grant the credit he deserves because he wasn’t Jew friendly.

    Ever since Vatican II, the Rothschild’s via David Rockefeller, Cyrus Scofield, and LBJ set out to destroy Christianity.

  • In 2008, Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlewaite of the United Church of Christ (UCC) objected to “spies” going into churches, recording sermons and taking notes. See https://www.onfaith.co/onfaith/2008/03/28/is-nothing-sacred/2352

    So how exactly should the IRS see if houses of worship (and other 501 c 3 nonprofits) were obeying the regulations? Should Thistlewaite hope that an outraged parishioner blow the whistle?

  • The Johnson Amendment applies to institutions such as houses of worship, charities, and other entities with 501 (c) (3) nonprofit status, including Mother Jones magazines, the Alternet Web site, and lots of activist groups on the left and right such as GLAAD, PETA, NAACP, ADL, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Catholic League. If an entity states your contribution is “tax deductible,” it’s either a 501 c 3 nonprofit (and thus barred from electioneering) or a scam.

    The Johnson Amendment does not apply to individuals such as ministers, rabbis, cardinals, and bishops. Cardinal Dolan can’t endorse a candidate from the pulpit. But he can endorse someone by writing an op-ed for a secular newspaper, giving an in-studio interview on CNN or FOX, or on Twitter. (If you check the Twitter feeds of various clergy, then often express their candidate preferences.) The IRS just suggests that the heads of non-profits include a disclaimer that they are speaking for themselves as individuals and not their nonprofit. This is how Bishop Gene Robinson, Rev. Jesse Jackson, et al manage to make political endorsements without drawing the wrath of the IRS.

    Of course, if a Catholic bishop were to make such a legal endorsement, there would be great outrage (including by folks who have no problems with liberal clergy endorsing Democrats). No Catholic bishop has the power to deliver entire his flock to any candidate. Since the “Catholic vote” is a swing vote, liberals are afraid that a bishop’s endorsement (or even just criticizing a candidate or taking a strong stand on abortion) could influence just enough Catholics (and maybe others) to make the difference, especially in a close election. Influencing people seems to be consistent with democracy. For those on the losing end, there will always be future elections. The pathetic urgency displayed in every election year (by both sides) and fears that if the other candidate wins, things will get Hitler- or Stalin-like is ridiculous and contributes to more and more polarization.

    I do think that lots of people have little or no idea what IRS guidelines actually are, how many organizations and publications are covered beyond churches and charities, and even misrepresent them to discourage some clergy from participating (again, NOT from the pulpit).

    Does anyone really believe that IRS guidelines even require cardinals or bishops not to reveal whom they’re going to vote for if asked by a reporter?

    For the record, the last Catholic bishop who made a formal endorsement in a presidential campaign was NY Auxiliary Bishop Emerson Moore (an African-American), who endorsed the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the 1984 Democratic primary. Catholic New York, the NY Archdiocese’s newspaper, reported the endorsement as a “news item” and made clear Bishop Moore was speaking for himself and not the entire Archdiocese.

  • “Just one more thing,” as one of my influences liked to say.

    Speaking of Johnson, the Rev. Martin Luther King endorsed him for re-election in 1964, citing Barry Goldwater’s extremist and repulsive positions. The endorsement was reported as a press release on the stationery of the Southern Christian Leadership Congress (SCLC). I checked, and the SCLC was first registered as a 501 (c) (4) nonprofit in 1962. IRS guidelines permit 501 (c) (4) nonprofits to engage in unlimited lobbying and even some electioneering. However, contributions to 501 (c) (4)’s are NOT tax-deductible. Here’s an image from the King Center, http://thekingcenter.org/archive/document/mlk-republican-nomination-barry-goldwater

  • In general, Politicking from the pulpit is dangerous, both for the social and political future of the country and for the churches themselves. I agree that politicking from the pulpit and engagement in electioneering stands only to corrupt the churches and erode their spiritual principals and duties. It is dangerous for the nation because of the damage to civil liberties that can and will be done in the name of God in the process of the church’s integrity gradually crumbling from merging with politics. Anyone remember the last time theocracy existed on a large scale (i.e. the middle ages?).

    When the churches start to concern themselves more and more with the personal and private lives of their parishioners and eventually everyone else, they start to become a political power in their own right (a la Pharisees). The First Amendment formally bans Congress from passing laws respecting an establishment of religion, which carries the dual meaning of a ban against any laws that bestow particular favour on religion (in general or a specific faith notwithstanding) and a ban on the endorsement of a particular faith as a national religion. The Same amendment also protects religion from acts of Congress that could ban their faith or inhibit the free exercise of religious practice…. all on the assumption of these clauses separating church and state and enforced insofar that no one’s religious freedom or freedom from religion is infringed upon by another. You’d think that the First Amendment’s first two clauses preceding the rights to free speech, press, and assembly and protest was enough and that special laws didn’t need to elaborate. The synergy of the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses are broad and far reaching and are self-explanatory. If a religion is trying to push any of its sincerely held ideals into law where they can be imposed upon everyone, then it can and should be hailed as unconstitutional and rejected out of hand. Meanwhile, anyone petitioning Congress to inhibit a faith’s rights to practice (or exist) should likewise be shot down out of hand as equally unconstitutional. That should be good enough, right?

    I mean, the aforementioned Constitutional points should effectively cover lobbying by the church, drafting bills by the church, and openly endorsing bills by the church, which, because Congress cannot pass such laws nor, in essence, accept their influence per the Constitution, means electioneering is out of the question as a pointless and wasteful endeavour; the money that would have been spent, therefore, being better appropriated to things the church should be funding, like charities and humanitarian efforts. Isn’t this common sense?

  • AHHHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHA! You’ve gotta be kidding me! I dispute the authenticity of this material. Occam’s Razor suggests it’s complete nonsense. . What kind of news are you looking at? Tabloids? Breitbart? I trust tin-foil hats are still a good fashion statement. LOL!

    Okay… here’s how it REALLY went. In pre-Soviet Russia, feudalism still existed to some degree. The Czar was still a despot and the Nobility/ruling class still owned most of the land privately. Everyone else had nearly no rights due to owning almost nothing, resigned to working the land for the benefit of the owning nobles. Well, at about the timeframe you’re getting your dubious source, this guy called Marx drew up a pipedream utopia called communism. In his vision, the nation would have no money, no economy, no market, no rich, no poor, no private property, and no government. Everyone took responsibility for policing each other. Everything was communally owned. All things were shared. everyone had a productive job that benefited the community. There was no need for money, nor greed, nor boasting of power due to wealth. It was a Human version of a beehive, sans a Queen, where everyone was equal and knew their place. It was a fanciful idea that appealed GREATLY to the increasingly angry poor, fed up with noble tyranny.

    Well, what happens when a bunch of ticked-off poor people who, one way or another, gain access to weapons get angry and fed up enough? A revolution happens. An armed and violent revolt against the tyrannical regime. There was no need for financing by a banking family. No need for some shadow government with aspirations for global domineering to catalyse it. No. It’s ALOT more simple than that. WE AMERICANS did the same friggin’ thing, as did the French right after us! No Illuminati to start it. Just poor, overworked, overtaxed, and oppressed people who happen to be armed. And revolt the Bolshevik Russian’s did with a vengeance.

    The Czar’s family were all executed, including the legendary Anastasia (she was about 9. They confirmed her body was among the rest of the Romanov’s bodies via dental records). The tyrant was annihilated, the nobles routed, some killed as well, their assets seized and a new regime constructed to take its place… incidentally, a completely corrupted and convoluted version of Marxism (since true Marxism is as impossible to institute and maintain long term as laissez faire capitalism. Human nature simply doesn’t allow it) became the new ideology and government model. It lasted surprisingly long, but inevitably collapsed (by comparison, laissez faire commits suicide a heck of a lot faster).

    Sorry, I’m not buying your anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. I implore you to leave the John Birch Society. They are nutjobs. come back to reality. please.

  • You must be trolling. The Bible was pretty specific that the Antichrist figure is referred to in the masculine. I’m also gravely concerned that you seem to bear a pro-oligarchy position. Why do you want a stratified society where everyone’s place is clear cut, hereditary, upward mobility being extremely hard, and endorsing a culture of greed, selfishness, and a total lack of altruism? It’s as if you WANT feudalism back, complete with kings and nobles and peasants, with rights being bought, not granted by law. Please tell me I’m misunderstanding.

  • Back in the day, the Puritans were not cool with freedom of religion. Thank god liberalism is the idea that evil deserves a fair chance. The freedom loving Quakers taught the Puritans a lesson by walking up and down the aisles undressed. Mass is at 9 am. If you want to coexist, just call and I’ll give you directions.

    After I stick my tea bags so far up your liberal mash potatoes your mouth stars as the family guy’s chin, we can go to the Church festival and share a Pelosi – a warm Italian dessert stuffed with pork and topped with bacon. Every year there is a Church gun sale.

    Philo, of the Alexandria Israelites, kicked a touchdown Buddha by reconciling Greek and Roman philosophy with God. The proverbs game was on the line. What would Caligula do?

    Thanks to the Flavians, one could make the argument that Jesus was a Roman creation that did such a good job of dividing the Jews that the Roman Empire was very peaceful from 70AD to 180AD. Titus called himself the son of God and God was his Ronald Reagan like dad. Emperor Vespasian is famous for saying “Damn it! I’m becoming a God!”. Titus Flavius Josephus wrote the History of the Roman Jewish War which matched the first three Gospels.

    Do you nestle by my bar stool?
    Making me so calm within
    Have you touch me with your warmness
    or have I wet myself again?

    Are you drinkin’ with me Jesus?
    I can’t see you very clear
    if you’re drinkin’ with me Jesus
    would you buy a friend a beer?

    But does your head pound with the message
    as hung over you do rise?
    Tell me what does heaven look like, Jesus?
    Seen through holy bloodshot eyes

    Or should we take a taxi home Jesus
    But can we simply hoof it from here?
    I know you can walk on the water
    But can you walk on this much beer?

    Are you drinkin’ with me Jesus?
    I can’t see you very clear
    if you’re drinkin’ with me Jesus
    would you buy a friend a beer?

    Are you drinkin’ with me Jesus?
    I can’t see you very clear
    if you’re drinkin’ with me Jesus
    would you buy a friend a beer?

    God Damn it Jesus! Buy me a fricking beer!

    Back in the day, the evil doers were doing so well the Romans round up all the Talmuds. Fast forward 2000 years and we’re sitting on the largest debt and governmental bubble in 6000 years – as good as it get for the first, second, or third coming. Jesus Christ, Catholic Churches are spawning Pokémon and Pope Francis likened ISIS to Jesus. Islam was an Augustinian screw up!

  • Obama thought he could get away with replacing George Washington with Muhammad doing a Norman Rockwell portrait of himself. Muhammad’s Obama grin and Yamaka gave him away.

    If half the players are in the stands cheering on a back door Santa, King James will move to Miami, move overseas, or sit in the stands. Radical referees always go left, think the best defense is an infuriating offense, and promote their failures. Obama was a missed layup and we had to beg him to fix the pothole – oops another miss.

    The “wipe out the middle class” criminal elite game plan is Cloward and
    Piven and REX84. Harvard law is where commies get their masters in retardation.

    Fabian Socialists are Luciferians with three symbols. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. A turtle that moves slowly and strikes hard. Two controlled conflicting parties pounding us into the dirt.

    If debt is money thanks to compounding interest, the national debt very quickly rises. As the economic hit men take the jobs and money out, they bring the people in. When the currency crashes, civil war and martial law.
    There isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between Communism, fascism, Nazism, socialism, and being totally ripped off by a bunch of fake phony frauds.

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