The Johnson Amendment and Politics From the Pulpit

EDITORIAL: Clergy who are silent on hot-button issues often defend their stance by pointing to U.S. tax law that restricts political speech from the pulpit. That’s a familiar argument, but it also happens to be wrong.

Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, D-Texas
Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, D-Texas (photo: Public domain via Wikimedia)

Whenever there’s a new election year, Msgr. Charles Pope doesn’t hesitate to tackle moral and social issues of concern to the Catholic Church.

But when the Washington pastor prepares a homily on sensitive policy matters, he also girds for pushback from parishioners, who challenge his right to speak from the pulpit about abortion, assisted suicide or immigration reform.

To pre-empt his flock’s objections, Msgr. Pope told the Register, he often introduces his remarks with a humorous riff that echoes their likely concerns.

“I don’t favor the use of capital punishment, and they call me a Democrat,” he’ll begin.

“I am against abortion, and they call me a Republican. I am also against gay marriage — (See, he is a Republican!)

“And I think we should be more open to welcoming immigrants — (See, he’s a Democrat!).”

He takes a breath and plunges ahead.

“And all the time I was just trying to be a faithful Catholic and a disciple of Jesus.”

“My framework is not politics — it is the Catechism and Scripture,” he explains, before addressing a specific issue.

Many other Catholic priests have their own methods of breaking the ice on such matters. Meanwhile, clergy who are silent on hot-button issues sometimes defend their stance by pointing to U.S. tax law, which restricts political speech from the pulpit.

That’s a familiar argument, but it also happens to be wrong. The U.S. tax code doesn’t prohibit pastors from addressing sensitive political issues in their homilies. On the other hand, it does make clear that they can’t endorse or oppose a candidate. 

This summer, the specifics of tax law governing political speech in churches became an issue after Donald Trump, the GOP’s presidential candidate, announced at the Republican National Convention that he would repeal the Johnson Amendment.

Named after then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, D-Texas, the 1954 amendment bars tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Specifically, it states that the majority of nonprofit organizations are “absolutely prohibited 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 also bars such organizations from any funding of political campaigns and public statements “in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.”

However, the law allows nonprofits to engage in “voter education or registration activities,” if they don’t give the appearance of supporting one candidate.

Simply put, the law allows a nonprofit publication, like the Register, to report and comment on political issues, though it can’t single out a specific candidate for support or opposition. Likewise, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is free to release election-year voting guides that adhere to the prescribed framework. The USCCB outlines the tax regulations in a document circulated to priests, “Political Activity and Lobbying Guidelines for Catholic Organizations.”

During his acceptance speech at the national convention in Cleveland, Trump didn’t mention the Catholic Church, but lauded “the evangelical community” and vowed to help its pastors by repealing the Johnson Amendment.

On Aug. 11, Trump met with hundreds of evangelical pastors in Orlando, Fla., to repeat his pledge, and that provides a good opportunity to explain why this tax law merits further scrutiny.

“The Johnson Amendment is vague, and no one knows exactly what is prohibited,” Erik Stanley, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, told the Register. “The IRS has not done a good job of clarifying the law over the years. Pastors are afraid of speaking out at all, for fear of an IRS audit.”

In past decades, some clergy have also challenged what they view as a double standard for compliance with the law. Black Protestant pastors, for example, have been seen as more likely to endorse candidates. That perception was born out in a recent Pew Research Center survey, which found that 28% of black Protestants had heard their pastors endorse a candidate, while 10% of white evangelicals, Catholics or mainline Protestants had a similar experience.

But Stanley also believes that shifting cultural values, which have placed churches on a collision course with newly identified sexual rights, have led some clergy to question whether a sermon should probe same-sex “marriage” or so-called abortion rights — especially if the issue is associated with the position of a candidate.

“The culture has slapped a political label on biblical and moral issues and told churches they have to stay out of it,” said Stanley.

Yet he also emphasized that the IRS had not taken one U.S. pastor or church leader to court over alleged violations of laws restricting religious speech. Some of the accused have been subjected to lengthy and expensive IRS audits, but not one case has gone to trial.

Is it time for the Johnson Amendment to be repealed?

It will come as no surprise that Rev. Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, opposes the repeal and warns that it would “turn America’s houses of worship into miniature political action committees,” by dropping restrictions on the use of church finances for political activity.

Some media outlets have echoed this critique. The USCCB did not respond to the Register’s request for comment on the Johnson Amendment, but some legal analysts, who seek to bolster conscience protections, suggest that the focus for religious nonprofits and churches at this time should be on more sweeping legislative relief.

“The gravest threat now is from the dominant progressive orthodoxy that, in the guise of nondiscrimination principles, seeks to compel everyone to adhere to its new norms,” Ed Whelan, the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a specialist on U.S. constitutional law, told the Register. “If genuine religious pluralism is going to survive, religious believers and institutions need specific and robust protections from the demands of this secularist orthodoxy.”

Truth be told, even if the Johnson Amendment stays on the books, the debate over Trump’s proposal could have a salutary effect on those Catholic pastors who have stayed silent during past elections. Now they know the law does not bar them from providing vital counsel to their flocks about the moral and social matters at stake.

“The priest is the moral compass for his people, but I don’t know if we, as priests, still recognize that we play this role,” Msgr. Bernie Schmitz, vicar for clergy in the Archdiocese of Denver, told the Register.

“Priests are hesitant to talk about these things, but the truth of the matter is that politics is about the organization of the social order. And for that reason, the Church teaches clearly that you cannot ignore politics — you have to be involved in it.”