Friday, February 03, 2017

"Destroying" the Johnson Amendment: Be Careful What You Pray For

In my days as a parish priest, the Johnson Amendment to the Tax Code prohibited my church from
endorsing candidates for political office, and that included me, acting in my role as a leader of that church.  That's what it did do.  Here's what it did not do:

It neither prevented us from discussing political issues, nor voicing opinions about them, including issues that were part of ballot initiatives.  In fact, the Johnson Amendment does not prohibit a church's endorsement of a "yes" or "no" vote on ballot initiatives.

It did not prevent me from putting a bumper sticker on my personally owned car, or a candidate yard sign in front of my personally owned house.  (if either the car or the house were church-owned property it would have prohibited me).  Many clergy do not want to be associated with a particular candidate in any way.  That is their choice, and in many congregational situations it is a good one.  However, that choice is not demanded by the Johnson Amendment.

If we want to be able to endorse candidates while preaching or teaching, or hand out flyers that endorse candidates, we can do that, but with a consequence: we cannot claim tax-exempt status.

Why not?  Tax-exempt status is the legal and constitutional way (although some have argued about whether the latter is true) that government on all levels supports religious and charitable institutions. Some would say this reality means that tax-payers support these institutions, and that may be true in the sense that if the church, for instance, paid taxes, perhaps everyone else's taxes would be less.

It is a trade-off, and one on which the church and other charitable institutions have come to depend, and not just financially.  It also protects us from becoming tools of politicians and political parties, which means it keeps our voice independent.

You might be thinking that your church is surely smart enough not to become the instrument of a political party.  You might be right.  You also might be wrong, because something would come into play that tends to corrupt institutions from without and from within:  money.  If I have the right to endorse a candidate, I also have the right to support them financially. Can you see the potential mess, the possibility of back-room deals?

The Constitution separates religious institutions and the state.  Government may not endorse any specific religion or religious institution.  Originally many thought it was a necessary provision because government should not be dictating religious conscience.  Perhaps more importantly, however, it has protected the freedom of religious institutions.  Now there is always going to be tension in the relationship causing arguments about such things as whether or not the church should be forced to follow employment laws or whether or not candidates may speak from church pulpits.  We figure these things out as we go along, as we do, through the judiciary, on all issues raised by the Constitution.

The tax-exempt status/non-endorsement of candidates firewall is not perfect and it can be frustrating at times.  But we ought to consider carefully just what we mean by religious freedom and understand how the current system protects that freedom much better than the removal of the firewall would.

It occurs to me that we could, of course, keep our tax-exempt status and be given the right to endorse and financially support, but we would be hypocritical to do so, and I do not think people as a whole would stand for it for long.

And then there is that tried and true pastoral advice:  be careful what you pray for.

No comments: