Buried in one of the tax bills winding through Congress at lightning speed is a provision in the House of Representatives bill that removes the “Johnson Amendment” from the tax law provisions that authorizes the creation of 501(c)(3) organizations commonly known as charitable organizations. These organizations are nonprofit corporations created in the various states that obviously have a charitable purpose and include churches and other religious organizations.

The primary purpose of a 501(c)(3) is to make donations to such organizations deductible on tax returns for those who itemize deductions. The foundation of charitable organizations in the United States is the availability of deductible contributions that help fund the organizations.

The Johnson Amendment was enacted in 1954 and prohibits the publishing or distribution of statements in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office. The law also prohibits the use of net income to fund such campaigns and the new legislation does not affect that component of the law. However, the prohibition of endorsing or opposing candidates will vanish if passed.

The repeal of the Johnson Amendment was a key component of the Trump platform when he ran for president. He promised evangelical preachers who were pivotal components of his base that he would work to get rid of this prohibition so that preachers could stand in the pulpit and endorse or oppose political candidates.

After Mr. Trump was elected, he issued an executive order that no one was to be prosecuted for violating the Johnson Amendment which probably had no real legal effect, but the practical effect was that preachers could now stand in the pulpit and advocate for or against a particular candidate. Evangelical preachers who wanted the repeal of the Johnson Amendment have been protesting the law since 2010 and many have ignored it. It is akin to driving 5-10 miles over the speed limit. It is still against the law, but not enforced. Thus, it was no surprise that this amendment was being offered to appease Trump’s evangelical base.

The practice of bringing candidates into churches has reportedly been going on for years. Many preachers have been doing this for candidates of both parties for quite some time. Thus, the repeal of the Johnson Amendment is essentially window dressing.

I am proud to report that my church, Maywood Baptist, does not engage in such activities. I love my church dearly, but the day someone stands in the pulpit and advocates or opposes any candidate for office is the day I leave. This is not a threat, but a heartfelt statement that I strongly believe that the church is not the place to engage in political rhetoric. I realize that this is controversial and some think that the leaders of churches should take a public stand in the churches.

The First Amendment to the Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The debate is over the issue of separation of church and state.Many well-intentioned people will argue that this doctrine is not contained in the First Amendment, but if you read the writings of the authors of the constitution, you will clearly see that their intent was to keep the two institutions separate. Thomas Jefferson wrote that the act of the American people declared that their legislature shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof “thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” Granted the words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the Constitution, which is the basis for many to argue against the concept.

Regardless of whether the Constitution prohibits political activities by churches, it is my firm belief that the purpose of the church is to provide a place of worship, education, fellowship and opportunities for service for its members, because Jesus only gave two commandments, to love God and also your neighbor. When Jesus was brought before Pilate shortly before he was taken to the cross, he told him that His kingdom was not of this world when he was asked if he was the King of the Jews. When asked by a Pharisee whether he should pay taxes, he said that we should “render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Yet, this is not an open invitation for the church to engage in political activities.

The Apostle Paul wrote that we should be subject to rulers, to obey and to every good work. Paul also said that the authorities are appointed by God, but in light of the behavior of some of our leaders, it makes one wonder whether this is still true.

No one can seriously contend that the nation is now more divided than it has ever been since the Civil War tore the nation apart 150 years ago. Social media has made the division even worse. Paul called the church the body of Christ. If the Lord’s House is divided, how can it fulfill its purposes by allowing for more division through endorsement of political candidates? Repeal of the Johnson Amendment appeases those who want to stand in the pulpit and endorse candidates. I just hope that those who do so appreciate the potential for division among their members. Such activity has the potential of destroying and not building up the body of Christ.

 

-- Bob Buckley is an attorney in Independence, www.wagblaw.com. Email him at bbuckley@wagblaw.com