Not Speech, Not Religion: It’s All About the Money
Almost lost in the brouhaha over Trump’s ban on travel from 7 predominantly Muslim countries–essentially the ban he promised in his campaign–is his pledge made largely to Evangelicals to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment in order to allow the clergy to “speak freely and without fear of retribution.”
Evangelicals–and other religious groups–have long fought the law in the name of “free speech” and denounce it as a breach of religious freedom. They claim it censors the content of a pastor’s sermon.
Civil libertarians support the legislation while cynics like me think opposition has more to do with money than with either speech or religion.
What is it?
A 1954 amendment to the US tax code–sponsored by Lyndon Johnson when he was a Senate leader–forbidding churches, synagogues, mosques and other nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations from directly endorsing (or opposing) specific political candidates and raising money for or otherwise participating directly in campaigns for public office–for any party. Violating the law could result in removal of the institution’s tax-exempt status–but it’s virtually impossible to find a case where this has happened.
Essentially it says clergypersons cannot make an endorsement from the pulpit. It does not inhibit the clergy from making endorsements speaking as individuals outside the confines of his or her house of worship–you’ve seen and heard loads of ministers, rabbis and even the occasional Catholic priest do so.
Clergy and congregations can otherwise discuss political and social issues of the most controversial kind and take positions on those issues if wanted. They can even publish voter guides outlining the positions of various candidates, short of endorsement.
This is hardly much of a muzzle on “free speech.” Fact is, the overwhelming majority of clergy don’t want to endorse from the pulpit for fear of offending parts of their congregation. It’s those pastors who believe they have a largely obedient following that might cough up campaign contributions–or whose churches could collect significant sums of money from the candidates themselves.
If the legislation were revoked it could make churches big-money players in campaigns–as if we don’t have enough already. Imagine the bucks they could collect if contributions to Candidate X, funneled through a religious receptacle, were tax exempt–like giving to the Red Cross.
Worse yet, it could open the way to greater abuse if political action committees were established by the religious group for the purpose of donating to candidates. Wouldn’t, say, the Koch Brothers love having their multimillion dollar gifts to those PACs as exempt from taxes as their contributions to PBS? Think of the millions they would save.
Then, too, having broken through on religious-based political tax exemptions, repeal of the Johnson Amendment could open the way for making other political contributions tax exempt.
Now think of all the money the US Treasury–meaning the citizenry–would lose. Yes, dear, it would wind up costing us all. Fortunately, Trump can’t repeal the amendment himself. It takes congressional action and maybe a few Republicans might think the idea is dangerous.
Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer