By Randall Balmer
One of the many challenges in coming to terms with a Donald Trump presidency is determining which of the many promises he made during the course of the campaign he actually intends to keep.
Amid all of the loose talk about building walls and repealing Obamacare and reinstituting torture, Trump recklessly promised to repeal the so-called Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
Addressing the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit in September, Trump promised, “I will repeal the Johnson Amendment if I am elected president.”
Mike Pence, his running mate, joined the chorus. In an address to the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, Pence reiterated Trump’s promise.
Repealing the Johnson Amendment, however, is a colossally bad idea, and both Pence himself and America’s evangelicals should know better than to traffic in snake oil.
The Johnson Amendment, named for Lyndon Johnson, then a U.S. senator, is a provision in the tax code passed in 1954 – the same year, in fact, that Congress inserted the words “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance. 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 reelection 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 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 assures that taxpayers are not subsidizing partisan politicking. It also ensures that tax-exempt organizations do not serve as a conduit for tax-exempt contributions to political candidates.
All of this kvetching from the Religious Right about restrictions on their freedom is an attempt to confuse voters with sleight of hand. By complaining about the supposed limitations on their freedom of speech, these leaders of the Religious Right fail to acknowledge that tax exemption is a form of public subsidy.
Let me provide an example. When I was pastor of a parish in Connecticut a few years back, the church stood on a prime piece of real estate in the middle of a fairly affluent community. Because of the congregation’s tax-exempt status, however, we paid no taxes (other than Social Security taxes on wages) – no income tax and, in particular, no property taxes.
We can have a vigorous conversation about whether or not such an exemption is a good thing. (I think, on balance, it is; the founders recognized the value of voluntary associations and sought to encourage them.) But that discussion aside, the bottom line is that taxpayers in the community effectively subsidized the church by paying extra taxes to support municipal services such as police protection, firefighters, parks, snow removal, road maintenance and the like.
The church certainly benefited from those services. If a fire had broken out, the fire department would have responded – even though we paid no property taxes for that service. The taxpayers in town paid instead, taking up the slack for the tax exemption on property that would otherwise be valued very highly.
The same situation holds true for churches, mosques and synagogues across the country. Tax exemption is a form of public subsidy. All the Johnson Amendment requires is that, in exchange for that subsidy, the beneficiaries refrain from partisan politicking.
For decades, until very recently, churches and other tax-exempt organizations have regarded this as a pretty good trade-off: We’ll accept public subsidies (in the form of not paying taxes) in exchange for refraining from political endorsements.
And let’s be clear: Pastors, churches or any other entity can make political endorsements from the pulpit or in any other forum. They need only to renounce their tax exemptions – their public subsidies – and they are free to be as partisan as they wish.
But there is another reason why the Johnson Amendment is a good idea. Religion has flourished in the United States as nowhere else in the world precisely because the government has (for the most part, at least) stayed out of the religion business, and vice versa.
Despite the Religious Right’s persistent attempts to circumvent it, the First Amendment is the best friend that religion ever had. It ensures that there is no established church, no state religion, and that religious groups can compete for adherents on an equal footing. And evangelicals, by the way, have historically fared very well in the free marketplace of religion established by the First Amendment.
The Johnson Amendment merely reinforces the wall of separation between church and state that was advocated by Roger Williams, founder of the Baptist tradition in America, and encoded into the First Amendment to the Constitution. And let’s remember that Williams wanted a “wall of separation” between the “garden of the church” and the “wilderness of the world” because he feared that the integrity of the faith would be compromised by too much entanglement with politics.
That’s a lesson worth recalling today, especially in the presence of politicians peddling snake oil.
Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is the John Phillips Professor in Religion and director of the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College. His latest book, Evangelicalism in America, includes several chapters on the First Amendment and the Baptist tradition.