At the National Prayer Breakfast this month, President Donald Trump promised to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment “and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.” I must confess that, on the list of things I hope the new administration will accomplish this year, this one is fairly far down.
The Johnson Amendment is named for President Lyndon Johnson, who inserted the provision as a floor amendment to the 1954 tax code. Johnson was then a freshman senator, engaged in an unpleasant primary election fight with a young conservative Catholic state representative from Beeville, Texas.
This was at the peak of Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt, and several right-wing nonprofits had supported Johnson’s opponent. Johnson worried that their charges of liberalism would hurt him.
So he proposed a prohibition on political activities by nonprofits: Organizations exempt from tax under section 501(c)(3) should not “participate in, or intervene in … any political campaign.” It applies to all kinds of nonprofits (The Catholic University of America, the Open Society Foundation), not just churches. What it means for churches, though, is that they can’t make campaign contributions, and they can’t endorse (or oppose) candidates from the pulpit.
They can still take positions on issues like abortion, family life, immigration and health care. The Catholic Church does this all the time. And the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Office of General Counsel offers elaborate guidelines for parishes and dioceses so they can observe the distinction between permitted and prohibited political interventions.
Though the Johnson Amendment was uncontroversial in 1954, there have been a lot of complaints about it lately. The Pew Research Center reported last year that 1 in 4 black Protestants heard their clergy endorse Hillary Clinton during the election campaign.
The Alliance Defending Freedom has worked for almost a decade to provoke a legal challenge to the rule. The Alliance Defending Freedom’s Pulpit Freedom Initiative asks pastors to preach about the moral qualifications of candidates seeking office.
The day before the National Prayer Breakfast, Sen. James Lankford and Rep. Jody Hice introduced a bill (the Free Speech Fairness Act) to amend the ban on endorsements, though not the one on contributions.
I’m not sure this is a good idea, though my reasons are probably different from the ones the secular left will advance. The Constitution does not require the Johnson Amendment. Separationists may say that giving churches a tax exemption and letting them participate in political campaigns is a forbidden mixture of church and state.
But repealing the Johnson Amendment would also free the Open Society Foundation to do the same thing. When the government is giving out subsidies, it should be allowed to treat churches the way it treats other, secular, institutions.
I might go even further. The idea that the government confers a benefit on churches when it declines to tax them (the “tax benefit” argument) rubs me the wrong way. It assumes that everything we have really belongs to the government (like whales and sturgeon belong to the queen), and anything we’re allowed to keep is a matter of grace. This kind of omnivorous statism is what got Trump elected.
But looking at the matter from the church’s point of view (rather than the government’s), I see a good deal of wisdom in the principle the Johnson Amendment expresses.
The Catholic Church does not align very well with either Republicans or Democrats, as events the week before the National Prayer Breakfast reminded us. Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the annual March for Life; that same day President Trump issued an order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Political endorsements really aren’t the mission of the church — not of our church, anyway. When it comes to voting, better she remind us at all times what the Gospel requires and leave it to us to figure out how to comply.
Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington.
Join the CatholicPhilly.com family
CatholicPhilly.com works to strengthen the connections between people, families and communities every day by delivering the news people need to know about the Catholic Church, especially in the Philadelphia region, and the world in which we live.
By your donation in any amount, you and hundreds of other people become part of our mission to inform, form in the Catholic faith and inspire the thousands of readers who visit every month.
Here is how you can help:
- A $100 gift allows us to present award-winning photos of Catholic life in our neighborhoods.
- A $50 gift enables us to cover a news event in a local parish, school or Catholic institution.
- A $20 gift lets us obtain solid faith formation resources that can deepen your spirituality and knowledge of the faith.
- A small, automated monthly donation means you can support us continually and easily.
Won't you consider making a gift today?
Please join in the church's vital mission of communications by offering a gift in whatever amount that you can ― a single gift of $40, $50, $100, or more, or a monthly donation. Your gift will strengthen the fabric of our entire Catholic community and sustain CatholicPhilly.com as your trusted news source. Thank you in advance!
Make your donation by credit card here:
Or make your donation by check:
222 N. 17th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103
PREVIOUS: Church, community come together to offer prenatal care to women
NEXT: America, land of prosperity: Even the word means hope
I believe in separation of church and state. I don’t want to hear anything political from the altar or see pictures of any cardinals, bishops
etc. with any person running for political office.in newspapers, magazines etc.
I agree with President Garvey. All too many of us would rather have someone tell us for whom to vote rather than thinking through some of the more difficult questions and encouraging constructive dialogue with those differing from our opinions. Our election choices should not be made on single issues, such as abortion or education or taxes, and it would be unfortunate for a pastor to endorse any candidate, and potentially cause more division in our communities. There aren’t easy choices these days, and I would rather be led by prayer and thoughtful consideration of each of the candidates, in light of the Gospel message.
The Phila. minority churches are well known for endorsing political and liberal candidates. We need equal time. We need stronger advocacy for Pro-life from our pulpits.
The Johnson Amendment has neutered the Catholic Church from unambiguously and decisively preaching from the pulpit on intrinsically evil moral issues that intersect with politics and legislative laws that run counter to God. It has turned the Church into a tame don’t rock the boat institution fearful of loosing its tax exempt status and also losing its place at the political and secular tables. It has also contributed to the complete absence of public admonishment of high profile Catholics who publically support, finance, or legalize intrinsic evils, and who by their examples lead regular Catholics astray.
The Johnson Amendment should be repealed.
When a candidate promises potential supporters that she or he would continue to support and promote killing defenseless, innocent human persons and encouraging and assisting any person to terminate a living human person whom a loving Father has created in His image and likeness,should not our spiritual teachers and leaders and and those who profess our faith be the first to express our faith ? Do we no longer have freedom of speach and worship without being penalizad ?