This past Sunday, thousands of pastors across the country took to their pulpits, not to preach the gospel but to talk politics. The occasion is “Pulpit Freedom Sunday“, an initiative started by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative Christian advocacy group. Pulpit Freedom Sunday is a protest of the Johnson Amendment, a law passed in 1954 which prohibits nonprofits, including churches, from endorsing political candidates. Nonprofits that violate this rule are eligible to have their tax-exempt status revoked.
As an act of civil disobedience on Pulpit Freedom Sunday, the ADF encourages pastors to violate this law by recording their explicitly political sermons and sending them to the IRS. The ADF explains:
“The ultimate goal of Pulpit Freedom Sunday is to restore a pastor’s right to speak freely from the pulpit without fearing government censorship or punishment…The IRS currently holds the power to impose legal sanctions on a church for something its pastor preaches from the pulpit.”
The Johnson Amendment has come into the spotlight this year as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has made repealing the law a centerpiece of his campaign. At the Values Voter Summit in September Trump said:
“The Johnson amendment has blocked our pastors and ministers and others from speaking their minds from their own pulpits. If they want to talk about Christianity, if they want to preach, if they want to talk about politics, they’re unable to do so. If they want to do it, they take a tremendous risk that they lose their tax-exempt status. All religious leaders should be able to freely express their thoughts and feelings on religious matters. And I will repeal the Johnson amendment if I am elected your president, I promise.”
Trump’s characterization of the Johnson Amendment is wildly inaccurate. The amendment does not, in any way whatsoever, regulate what religious leaders can or cannot say about their faith. The Johnson Amendment narrowly and exclusively prohibits them from explicitly endorsing political candidates. That’s it.
Similarly, the ADF is being disingenuous when they claim that the Johnson Amendment is infringing on a pastor’s free speech. Pastors are perfectly free to speak about politics from the pulpit but not while retaining their church’s tax-exempt status. This is the crucial point that opponents of the Johnson Amendment neglect. Religious institutions enjoy a privileged status. They are exempt from paying taxes and from disclosing financial information, including their sources of income and their expenditures. These benefits are a privilege, not a right. We grant churches and other nonprofits their tax-exempt status in the hope that they will contribute to the betterment of society, not participate in partisan politics.
The Johnson Amendment is one of the very few restrictions placed on religious institutions and it is crucial for the maintenance of our secular society. If allowed to endorse candidates, churches would become the equivalent of religious Super PACS, exempt from all transparency requirements and free to funnel untold sums of money to the politician of their choice. The wall of separation between church and state is mutually beneficial and aside from the influence that churches would have on politics, it is worth considering what impact political participation would have on religious institutions. Rabbi David Wolpe considers just that in question in an article entitled Why Religious Leaders Should Not Endorse Candidates. He writes;
“As a Rabbi or Priest or Minister, the more political you become, the less suasion you have over the intimate parts of people’s lives. Politics can be so loud that people have a hard time coming to someone to officiate at a wedding or funeral or for counseling if they think the person is an advocate for the other side. Most of religious life is lived in the small spaces; we comfort and soothe and take care of one another. We pray together and celebrate together. To lose that to large public disputes is a tragedy for the community of believers.”
The Johnson Amendment is a crucial pillar maintaining the wall of separation between church and state. Secular Values Voters will continue to defend it because we know that only a secular government can guarantee all Americans the freedom of, and from, religion.