Partisan at the pulpit: The Johnson amendment

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tags: First Amendment, Trump, Johnson Amendment



Randall Balmer is chairman of the religion department at Dartmouth College. His most recent book, “Evangelicalism in America,” includes several chapters on the First Amendment and the Baptist tradition. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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Donald Trump’s promise to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, delivered at the National Prayer Breakfast last week, is a totally bad idea, one that compromises the First Amendment.

The Johnson Amendment, passed by Congress in 1954 and named for Lyndon Johnson, then a U.S. senator, is a provision in the tax code that prohibits tax-exempt organizations from openly supporting political candidates. In the words of the tax code, “all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

I have no doubt that Johnson, consummate politician that he was, had his own reasons for pushing the legislation in 1954; he was running for re-election and didn’t want adversarial groups working against him under cover of tax-exempt organizations. But those motives should in no way diminish the wisdom of the measure.

Leaders of the religious right in recent years, however, have been pushing for a repeal of the Johnson Amendment. They argue that pastors should be able to make political endorsements from the pulpit without jeopardizing their churches’ tax exemptions. The fact that they cannot now do so, they argue, represents an infringement on their religious freedom.

That’s utter nonsense. The Johnson Amendment merely ensures that taxpayers do not subsidize partisan politicking. It also ensures that tax-exempt organizations do not serve as the conduit for tax-exempt contributions to political candidates.

Kvetching from the religious right is really just an attempt to confuse voters with sleight of hand. Even as they complain about the supposed limitations on their freedom of speech, these leaders fail to acknowledge that tax exemption is a form of public subsidy. ...




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