Repeal the Christian Gag Rule: Johnson Amendment Allows Continued IRS Targeting

The exterior of the Internal Revenue Service building in Washington March 22, 2013. (Susan Walsh/AP)
Susan Walsh/AP

When Donald Trump addresses the Values Voters Summit on September 9th, he will tell the assembled Christians that it is time to get the IRS out of the pulpit. And he will encourage the assorted evangelical and Catholic activists, who have gathered in Washington, D.C. for this event, to surge out of their churches and reoccupy the public square.

Trump understands what holds them back: a clever piece of legislation named after its sponsor, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson, of course, is the accidental president who got us into the Vietnam War, then prevented us from winning. (Who says history doesn’t repeat itself?)

The Texas Democrat, a master of rough-and-tumble politics, introduced his eponymous amendment back in 1954 when he was the leader of the Democrat minority in the Senate. It said, in effect, that the government would strip your church or charity of its nonprofit status if it got involved in politics.

The amendment has been used as a club to beat Christians into silence ever since. This gag rule has robbed priests and pastors of their freedom of speech, causing many to retreat into a kind of studied vagueness, if not complete silence, where the great moral issues of our day is concerned. If a religious leader is forbidden to talk about the morality or immorality of political candidates and their positions, then he is not able to help his congregation understand how to put their faith into action.

Too many Christian leaders today live in fear of losing their ministry’s tax-exempt status, and facing punitive taxes to boot. As the recent behavior of Lois Lerner’s Internal Revenue Service shows, these are real fears.

Just ask me. I have been a victim of this unjust law, and seen up close and personal how it is selectively applied to silence people of faith. I run a Catholic pro-life, pro-family non-profit. A couple of election cycles ago, we published a pro-life voter’s guide, listing the two presidential candidates’ positions on a number of life and family issues.

Not long thereafter I received a call from someone in Lois Lerner’s office. The faceless bureaucrat on the other end of the line proceeded to threaten me with the loss of our nonprofit status and punitive fines because I had intervened in a partisan political campaign.

How so? I protested. We had neither endorsed a specific candidate nor a political party. Rather, we were simply doing our civic duty by educating the voters on where the two candidates stood on an array of life and family issues.

Not good enough, he responded. If I wanted to publish a voter’s guide, it should have covered not just pro-life issues, but all the issues.

He went on to list a number of Leftist causes that were obviously near and dear to his Progressive heart, such as the raising the minimum wage, combating global warming, eliminating the use of fossil fuels, and the like. “A proper voter’s guide would cover all the issues,” he repeated emphatically, “not just a select few.”

“Can you perhaps send me a sample voter’s guide,” I asked, “so I can see for myself what issues the government would like me to cover?”

“No,” he responded. “We don’t have a sample voter’s guide.”

“Well, in that case, can you possibly send me the IRS regulations governing voting guides and related issues?”

“No,” he said flatly, “We don’t have any specific regulations that I can send you.”

He went on to demand that I never again publish a voter’s guide. “If you do,” he threatened, “We will take away your nonprofit status and impose a fine.”

It turned out that I had run afoul of the Johnson Amendment—or at least the Obama administration’s interpretation of it–although I did not know it by that name. In fact, it wasn’t until I attended the June meeting of evangelical and pro-life leaders with Donald Trump in New York City that I made the connection.

At that meeting Trump told us—bluntly, as is his way—that he would work to repeal the Johnson Amendment. “I think maybe this will be my greatest contribution to Christianity.” he told us. “When you talk religious liberty… go and speak openly. If you want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to say it.” The assembled pastors, who had long been shackled by the statute, rose to their feet as one to applaud him. 

In the weeks since the Donald has returned to this theme again and again.

He devoted two whole paragraphs to it during his convention speech:

At this moment, I would like to thank the evangelical and religious community in general who have been so good to me and so supportive. You have much to contribute to our politics, yet our laws prevent you from speaking your minds from your own pulpits.

An amendment, pushed by Lyndon Johnson, many years ago, threatens religious institutions with a loss of their tax-exempt status if they openly advocate their political views. I am going to work very hard to repeal that language and protect free speech for all Americans.

He has also made sure that the Republican Party platform references the policy: “Republicans believe the federal government, specifically the IRS, is constitutionally prohibited from policing or censoring speech based on religious convictions or beliefs, and therefore we urge the repeal of the Johnson Amendment.”

Last week in Orlando, Florida, he made the case again. “If I get elected president, one of the early things, one of the absolute first things I’m going to do is work on totally knocking out the Johnson Amendment,” Mr. Trump told Christian leaders.

Repealing the Johnson Amendment would immediately end the IRS’ ability to censor the speech of religious leaders. The First Amendment’s free-speech protections would once again apply to ministers in the pulpit, as they have throughout the long history of our republic.

Not that some churches, especially those serving minority communities, have ever had to worry about losing their tax-exempt status. Lois Lerner and her staff did not target Democrat-leaning churches and groups, only conservative ones. I doubt if many left-wing churches, or nonprofits (the Clinton Foundation?) ever face IRS scrutiny for violating these rules.

Historically, that hasn’t stopped some religious organizations from issuing endorsements anyway. In fact, the Left often uses the literal bully pulpits of black churches to preach to the party faithful. So we have incidents like the pastor of a Bronx church who told worshippers to substitute Hillary Clinton’s opponent’s name for Satan during a hymn.

Conservative Christians are much less likely to get political from the pulpit, however, not just because they are under heavier scrutiny from the IRS, but also because they are inherently more law-abiding.

Those who defend the Johnson Amendment claim that Christians have made a deal with the government: pastors will enjoy the benefits of non-profit status and, in exchange, their ministry will be non-partisan. In fact, the supposed “deal” is nothing more than a figment of Progressive imaginations.

What actually happened was the U.S. Congress, recognizing the great good accomplished by churches and other voluntary organizations, decided long ago to exempt them from taxation. It is only in recent decades that Progressives, both those in Congress and in the permanent bureaucracy, decided to silence the Christian churches, and reduce their public influence, by threatening to tax them.

At this they have been largely successful. Many Catholic bishops and evangelical pastors have gone silent on the great moral issues of the day, abandoning the public square to those on the Left.

Trump wants to invite Christians back into the public square. He understands the importance that this change will make in preserving what’s left of our Judeo-Christian heritage.

The consequences of repealing the Johnson Amendment would be dramatic. Imagine if pastors could speak freely to their congregations about which party platform supports a Christian understanding of Life and Marriage, and which doesn’t. Imagine if Catholic priests and bishops could inform their pewsitters about which one of the candidates wants to fund abortion and Planned Parenthood, and which one wants to end this misuse of their tax dollars.

The Johnson Amendment has been tremendously corrosive not just to the religious life of this nation, but to its political life as well. It has inhibited the public practice of the private virtues that made America what it is today. Its repeal would go a long way towards reinvigorating our nation’s politics and, of course, making America great again.

Steven W. Mosher is the President of the Population Research Institute, but wants the IRS to know that his affiliation is given for purposes of identification only!


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