Separation of church and state is an idea that comes up frequently in the dialog of American politics. More regularly, now that we have a president who is committed to the evangelical Christian cause in Donald Trump.
In a nation founded on religious freedom, we practice this separation by respecting the rights of people who observe different religions. We ensure that people can practice whatever religion they choose, but we also establish boundaries.
The Johnson Amendment is one of these boundaries — it prohibits nonprofit organizations like churches from making political contributions.
While Catholic Church leaders have abstained from addressing the issue directly, followers of their religious freedom campaign have ignited a pitched conversation about the prospect of repealing the 64-year-old amendment.
What the Johnson Amendment Does
To understand the importance of the Johnson Amendment, consider the story of how it was conceived. In 1954, then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson presented the amendment with a tax bill as a means of stifling McCarthyist efforts.
Johnson knew that a prominent Texas oilman was channeling funds to hyper-conservative politicians through right-wing nonprofit organizations. With the passage of the amendment, it became illegal for nonprofits to make political contributions.
To quote the amendment, churches and other nonprofit 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.”
LBJ didn't design the amendment as a means of reinforcing the separation of church and state. Churches are still allowed to advise their attendees on political matters, for example.
However, it does excuse religious organizations from being pressured by political candidates who are seeking contributions.
The GOP’s Tax Bill at One Time Suggested Removing the Johnson Amendment
Arriving at a final tax bill in December was a long and drawn-out process for the GOP, and you may know that some of the bills proposed along the way included significant changes to our financial code that did not make it through.
Just like the medical expense deduction that House Republicans sought to repeal, the Johnson Amendment found itself squarely in the crosshairs of the GOP’s pro-business efforts.
The argument to repeal the amendment characterizes it as limiting the free speech of nonprofit organizations. However, it's hard to see how an organization that is subject to the pressures of partisan politics has any more freedom than one excluded from that corrupt part of the American political game. Ultimately, House and Senate Republicans made the right choice to keep the Johnson Amendment.
What would a Repeal Look Like?
Even though the question of whether this amendment is aimed directly at establishing boundaries between church and state remains unanswered, we can speculate about what may have happened if the amendment had been repealed.
Consider the fact that freedom of religion as promised by the Constitution is intended to provide persons of all religions equal treatment under the law.
Should nonprofit organizations get the power to contribute to partisan causes, clearly those religions with larger followings would have greater political power than smaller religions.
As a result, politicians would pander to larger religions. Legislation would take shape in ways created to reinforce positive relationships between politics and the largest religions and we would begin to see church and state become very much entangled.
The credibility of nonprofit organizations would effectively dissolve.
Rabbis, pastors, and other religious leaders would be forced to consider their partisan alignment when addressing a congregation. Instead of the dialog of worship is focused on the personal and social aspects that make religion an important part of our community, it would be tinged by political partisanship.
Speaking out Against Repeal
Part of the reason Republican leaders chose to keep the Johnson Amendment is feedback from voices active in the nonprofit community. That includes religious leaders such as Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, head of the U.S Catholic bishop’s Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.
The National Council of Nonprofits was just one of 4,500 nonprofits to endorse a community letter urging Congress not to repeal the law in April.
In it, they called nonpartisanship “a cornerstone principle that has strengthened the public’s trust of the charitable community,” and said that the amendment “shields the entire 501 (c)(3) community against the rancor of partisan politics.”
It is good to see that even within religious organizations that are largely supported by conservative politicians, there is still enough reason left to understand how toxic an environment we would create by combining partisan politics with religious nonprofits.
Let’s hope it never comes to that.