Johnson Amendment: Repeal Threatened

I’ve been looking into the “Johnson amendment” that Trump has threatened to repeal. According to the IRS website, it’s a 1954 amendment to the Tax Code that prohibits 501(c)(3) non-profits organizations “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.” It is this Tax Code provision that the Trump Foundation violated when it made a contribution to Florida AG Pam Bondi’s election campaign.

Churches are 501(c)(3) non-profits; so are the Girl Scouts; so is the Trump Foundation. The designation means that donations to them are tax-deductible for the donor; it also means the organizations don’t pay income, sales, or property taxes, a benefit other types of organizations, like PACs, don’t have.

The Johnson amendment doesn’t prohibit churches from participating in most political activities: they can publish “issue guides”; they can conduct voter registration guides; they can bus “souls to the polls.” Ministers are free to use their pulpits to state positions on social issues. What the Johnson amendment prohibits is actually endorsing a politician or using tax-exempt donations to support a politician’s campaign.

The effects of repeal are easy to see: your church could use your tithes or offerings to support a political candidate of its choice. Likewise, the Girl Scouts, the Trump Foundation, or any other 501(c)(3) non-profit could use your donations, not to support the organization’s stated mission, but to promote political candidates chosen by the board of directors.

I suppose that would be great if each of us could be sure that our church or each non-profit we support would use our donations to support only those politicians we prefer. That way all of us little people could get a tax deduction for at least part of our political contributions. I’d be upset, however, if I donated to a church or charity and then found out it had used my donations to support candidates that I oppose.

The big danger is that very rich folks could set up their own foundation, just like Trump has, make tax-deductible donations to it, and then cause it to contribute to their chosen political candidates. So, unlike you and me, they would in effect be able to reduce their taxes by passing their political contributions through a 501(c)(3) non-profit. Isn’t that just what we need, more money in politics and yet another tax break for the very rich?

All this reminds me of an incident that happened in Denton, TX during the 1960 presidential campaign. John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism was a stumbling block for many Protestant denominations, who worried that the Pope might control a Catholic president. Not until Kennedy’s September 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association did such questions recede, although they never entirely disappeared.

In Denton that summer, the pastor of a local Baptist church devoted a Sunday sermon to telling his flock why they should never vote for a Catholic for president. After he had finished, one of the congregation stood up, walked up to the pulpit, and said, “Pastor, now that you’ve brought politics into our house of worship, I’d like equal time.” The church member, a lawyer, then proceeded to tell the congregation why they should vote for JFK. 

The attorney’s name was Royce Whitten; his son Michael Whitten, who was a teenage runner at the Denton Record-Chronicle when I was a reporter there, became a lawyer himself, and is still practicing in Denton.

Royce Whitten’s insistence on equal time in the pulpit took a lot of courage — and made the congregation pretty damn uncomfortable, I’m sure. But if the Johnson amendment is repealed, I’ll bet a lot of internal discomfort will follow when each of our churches and non-profits become just another overtly political actor. Remember what happened to the Komen Foundation when it appeared to be taking sides against Planned Parenthood? I know people who stopped donating to Komen then and will never donate to it again.

And if a church or a non-profit is just another actor in the political arena, why should it have tax-exempt status? Why should donations to it be tax-deductible? In our society, churches claim a special, moral status. How special or moral will any church be seen to be, once it begins acting like just another political player?

 I suspect that at least some of the falloff in religiosity since my childhood — and the lessened respect for religion — is due to the strident political activity of some denominations, which seem to be aimed at imposing their denominations’ values on the rest of us. Respect is likely to diminish further if churches start using their tithes and donations to endorse  and support politicians.

Maybe I’m just wanting to avoid having to choose my charities and/or church on the basis of which politician they might support or maybe I think churches have a higher calling. What I know is that Trump’s call to repeal the Johnson amendment is a solution in search of a problem — if it isn’t Pandora’s box.

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