Dear Apolitical Associates:
It’s called the Johnson Amendment, and if you think these weekly email posts should not become more political, then please keep reading.
In 1954, a senator from Texas, Lyndon Johnson, proposed an amendment to the internal revenue code that stated no tax exempt religious organization [501(c)(3)] could use their funds for the purpose of influencing legislation or endorsing or campaigning for a particular candidate. It passed without debate, as it did again in 1983, when the Regan administration reworked a substantial portion of the IRS code.
It simply means that religious institutions, churches, synagogues, mosques, charitable organizations, etc. cannot use their tax-free money to directly influence political outcomes. To me it makes perfect sense for so many reasons. From the political side of the equation it keeps politicians from using churches as a tax-free funding source for campaigns and legislative lobbying. If I were running for office (that’s not going to happen) and created a campaign fund, donations to that fund are not tax deductible. The fund itself does not pay taxes, but every contribution would come from after-tax financing. Not so with gifts to religious institutions. If a church could endorse my campaign, I wouldn’t ask for contributions to the campaign fund, I would encourage gifts to the church, your generous campaign contributions would become tax deductible. The Johnson Amendment is a practical way keep political contributions taxable.
But there is a serious religious side to this issue as well. In the middle ages kings wanted church endorsements. The Pope had the power to excommunicate kings and in doing so he could excommunicate all of the subjects of that king. Great, one day your king honked off the Pope and suddenly you’re excluded from living in a state of grace. Religious endorsements were powerful tools, a major factor in creating a climate for the Protestant Reformation. Our theology has changed, fortunately we no longer believe the spirituality of our leader has implications for our salvation, but placing a fire-wall between the religious institutions and specific political influence codifies that separation.
Please note, the Johnson Amendment does not say people motivated by their faith are restricted from endorsing politicians or policies, we are merely prohibited from using tax-free money to do it. Likewise it does not say we cannot discuss politics in church – we are welcome to speak clearly, debate loudly and educate without restraint, providing such activities stop short of specific political endorsements. We do not print voter’s guides nor do we use church perks to circulate candidacy petitions; but I trust such activities are constrained for reasons beyond IRS code. We do not do it because throughout history every time the institutional church engages in power politics, the church loses; it becomes a tool of special interests, a place I do not want to be.
The last thing our Session needs is a bunch of pandering politicians seeking our endorsement. We’ve got significantly more important things to do, like helping one another learn how to make good decisions, not making decisions for them.
Granted, the Johnson Amendment has seldom been enforced; the Justice Department has been hesitant in taking on churches around issues of free speech. But enforced or not, I do not believe we as a church have any business telling people how to vote. We can talk about why we vote or why we don’t, we can discuss what to consider while voting, we can even explore the implications of various electoral outcomes; but specific endorsements coming from the church will allow politics to become a means of division in a community called to transcend the political. We may disagree about our choices in the public forum, but in the community of faith our unity is not for sale.
Proudly campaigning for FPCLG I remain with love,
Jonathan B. Krogh