U.S. Churches Shouldn't Play Politics

Prayers and politics.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Donald Trump has promised to eliminate a longstanding prohibition on political campaigning by religious organizations. It’s a bad idea, and the devout should be first in line to oppose it.

The ban, called the Johnson Amendment for its sponsor, then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, doesn’t apply to political speech or activity on the part of ministers, rabbis or imams. The First Amendment protects them as it does all citizens. But if the religious organizations they run wish to be exempt from taxes and accept tax-deductible contributions, the groups must refrain from political campaign activity, as all other charitable groups do. That means no endorsing candidates from the pulpit, and no using church funds to support or oppose particular candidates or parties.

Thus, religious organizations get a public subsidy, and the public maintains an essential division between church and state. If this bargain were to collapse, the real danger would come not from church sermons, but church spending.

Religious organizations and other 501(c)(3) organizations -- unlike political parties and super-PACs -- aren’t required to disclose their donors. Without the Johnson amendment, political donors could make anonymous, tax-deductible contributions to religious organizations, undermining national disclosure laws and turning houses of worship into fronts for candidates and parties.

It’s true that nonprofit civic groups -- what the IRS calls 501(c)(4) organizations -- can accept unlimited anonymous donations, but these aren’t tax-deductible. And 501(c)(4) groups face limits (however weakly enforced) on their campaign activities. Why would a donor give money to a 501(c)(4) -- or a candidate or a political party, for that matter -- when he or she could get a tax deduction by giving to a politically driven church? How long would it be before political consultants became legally ordained?

Without the Johnson amendment, religious groups would be in a stronger position to seek preferential treatment (as all special interests do). Yet the Constitution bars government from favoring one religious group over another. Congress can write laws with special protections for individual companies, but not for individual churches.

The Founding Fathers understood that mixing church and state threatens the free exercise of religion. Trump does not, and he is pandering to a small group of mostly evangelical leaders who wish to see more religious -- that is, Christian -- influence over public policy. But the best way to protect your own religious liberty is to protect everyone else’s, too. Those in the majority today may find themselves in the minority tomorrow. Just ask the Puritans.

Even before Trump’s rise, Muslims seeking to build mosques in many American communities -- including liberal New York City -- encountered political resistance. Repealing the Johnson amendment would further embolden some people to challenge the First Amendment’s protection of free exercise. It would also signal to the world that the U.S. is retreating from the traditions of tolerance and pluralism that have made it great.

Religious organizations should remain free to engage in political campaigns -- but only on their own dime.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.