At yesterday’s National Prayer Breakfast, President Donald Trump said, “I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution. I will do that. Remember.”
The 1954 amendment introduced by former Senator and President Lyndon B. Johnson bans all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations—which includes churches and parachurch ministries—from endorsing candidates or participating in political campaigns as an institution or risk losing their tax exempt status.
Members of Congress have already moved to introduce legislation reversing the Johnson Amendment. The Free Speech Fairness Act is thought by many conservative lawmakers and Evangelical leaders to be a fair remedy the to free speech infringements imposed by the Johnson Amendment.
“I am grateful to President Trump for raising this issue to prominence over the last year,” responded Dr. Jerry Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, in a press statement. “For too long the infamous Johnson Amendment has dangled like a sword above the heads of pastors and ministry leaders, chilling their constitutional free speech rights.”
Hernan Castano pastors a minority church affected by a 2014 subpoena by the city of Houston demanding sermons dealing with homosexuality be turned over for review. As the Christian Post reports, Castano also lends his support to President Trump’s promise to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment.
“We need to repeal the Johnson Amendment because I have seen the faces of pastors, not only the pastors of big congregations but the pastors of smaller congregations,” Costano said. “I have seen the fear of their heart holding them back from speaking truth and I have seen them hold back from what will make a difference for their own people because they do not want the doors of their church buildings closed or their 501(c)(3) removed.”
Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary, has previously denounced the Johnson Amendment as a political tool used by secular organizations like the ACLU to “intimidate and silence pastors and churches in addressing the political issues, which often have deeply moral components that face our nation.”
However, Land is cautious in his approach. “I personally don’t believe that churches should be endorsing candidates for office. Instead, we should be looking for candidates that endorse us, our values, our beliefs, our convictions.”
The constitutionality of the Johnson Amendment is debated as a violation of the First Amendment’s Free Speech and Exercise clauses as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. As such, Dr. Land believes decisions of political engagement should be “made by the church and the pastor” and “not one that is coerced or mandated by the government.”
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has argued along the same lines as Land. “While I don’t think a church normally should endorse candidates for office from the pulpit,” stated Moore previously, “Such decisions shouldn’t be dictated by bureaucrats at the IRS or anywhere else. That’s why I support the freedom of speech for churches and pastors, even when they say more or less than what I would say from the pulpit.”
Indeed, I too do not want to see my pastor or church collectively endorse candidates or support particular political campaigns. But yesterday my Methodist colleague Mark Tooley offered historical warnings for why Evangelicals should err on the side of caution in this debate.
Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and a life-long Methodist, offered a fresh reminder that neither American democracy nor American Christianity would be served by politicized churches regularly wading into partisan policy debates. “The institutional church has no historic mandate for routinely engaging in political specifics such as candidate endorsements or backing legislation,” wrote Tooley in an email.
Christian citizens might be called to work in specific areas of politics, that’s true. But if the institutional Church becomes politicized and partisan, Tooley explained it will lose its effectiveness for spreading the Gospel. We need only look at the history of the Mainline Protestant denominations to learn such a vital lesson.
“The sad history of the once predominant Mainline Protestant establishment,” wrote Tooley, “whose fall is partly due to its exchanging the Gospel for politic zeal, should be a warning to us all.”