Should the Johnson Amendment be Repealed?

The Johnson Amendment applies to all non-profit entities organized under s.501(c)(3) of United States tax law. Such entities claim charitable status and are exempted from paying income tax. They are also given the authority to issue tax-deductible receipts for any donations received. In return, the Johnson Amendment stipulates that such entities agree to refrain from politics. Educational institutions, art organizations, scientific entities and churches all claim charitable status. Yet only churches appear to raise objections to the condition of non-involvement in politics to retain tax-exempt status. Why is this?

Churches claim that due to the Johnson Amendment they are unable to speak freely on issues important to them. This is incorrect. Churches can speak on issues. What they cannot do is endorse or oppose candidates or political parties. They are free to exhort what they espouse as godly living: that same-sex marriage is sin, that abortion is wrong, that the use of recreational drugs and alcohol desecrates one’s body which is the temple of God, that one should tithe, give to the poor and live a life of self-sacrifice.

Long before the Johnson Amendment, many believed charities were noble enterprises and above politics. In 1913 charities were granted tax-exempt status in the United States. Before the Johnson Amendment in 1954 both the courts and Congress continued to uphold the principle that charities, being entities for good, were not to be involved in politics, which was viewed as dirty and ignoble (http://scholarlycommons.law.case.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1266&context=caselrev).

At the time of the nation’s founding, James Madison wrote Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-08-02-0163). Madison’s piece has been called the greatest essay on religious liberty ever written, at least in American literature. It was written as a petition to protest a bill subsidizing the teaching of Christianity. Giving 15 reasons outlining that the mixing of politics and religion did no good for either politics or religion, in Article 5 he notes that Christianity does not need government support,

. . . the establishment proposed by the Bill is not requisite for the support of the Christian Religion. To say that it is, is a contradiction to the Christian Religion itself, for every page of it disavows a dependence on the powers of this world: it is a contradiction to fact; for it is known that this Religion both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them, and not only during the period of miraculous aid, but long after it had been left to its own evidence and the ordinary care of Providence.

Why is it that churches, which professedly exist to direct people to God and a higher standard than that of the world, want to engage in politics? Those involved in politics generally do not have a good reputation. Members of Congress and lobbyists are often considered the least ethical and trustworthy of all professionals (http://www.gallup.com/poll/1654/Honesty-Ethics-Professions.aspx). Perhaps this is why Jesus said ‘to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s? To mix politics and religion harms religion and does not uplift politics.

Jesus said, ‘God so loved the world, He sent His Son . . . ’. He did not say, ‘God so loved the world except for . . . ‘. No party or person has sole claim upon God and His salvation. Jesus came to show everyone His love and goodness. He did not use the power of government to win followers or to share His message of love and forgiveness. He never used force or duress to gain followers. He did not lobby for legislation to comply with His mission or message. Had He done so, Pilate surely would have found fault with Jesus (John 19:4).

We who claim to be Jesus’ followers are ethically bound to share His love to all, just as He did. By identifying with a political party we may prevent sharing His love with those not of that party or political persuasion. When speaking out on issues Christians need to remember that there is no ‘except for’ in God’s love. God’s love is pure and good, two terms rarely if ever associated with the word ‘politics.’ If churches believe God is calling them to engage in such activities they need only give up their tax-exempt status. Those advocating repealing of the Johnson Amendment need to consider whether engaging in politics, which generally creates division and hatred, is the best means of representing and sharing God’s salvation and love.

Karen R. Scott, J.D. is a well known expert on religious liberty. Early in her career she set a new precedent in work-place religious and disability accommodation by winning a landmark case before the Supreme Court of Canada. She holds an international law degree from Oxford University and serves on the board of Liberty of Conscious http://www.centerforliberty.org.


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