A pastor’s perspective on Trump’s efforts to repeal the Johnson Act
Citing Thomas Jefferson’s quote, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty,” in a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, Trump went on to promise that he would “get rid of and totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment. He claimed, as have some other contemporary Republicans, that the Johnson Amendment is a restriction on the free speech of churches and other non-profit organizations.
The Johnson Amendment was uncontroversial in 1954, the year of its conception. It was made to prevent any non-profit organizations with 501(c)(3) tax exemptions, notably charities and churches, from explicitly denouncing or supporting a political candidate or contributing money to political campaign funds. The amendment benefitted these organizations in that it allowed any donations made to churches and charities to be tax-deductible.
If the Johnson Amendment were to be destroyed, many fear it would allow for political donations to become tax-deductible and that pastors might begin advocating for candidates from behind the pulpit, potentially dividing congregations.
Pastor Nathan Mattox of University United Methodist Church provided a perspective from our on-campus clergymen.
When asked what kind of influence a person’s faith should have on their political opinions, Pastor Mattox said that “faith should play a vibrant and vital role in one’s political opinions. In many cases, to be true to one’s faith requires a corresponding political position and action.” He equated “politics” to the way a religious person might live their life according to their relationship with God.
He emphasized Jesus’s role as a “very political person” before saying, “Being baptized into his life in the world involves the following covenant vows: renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness, rejecting the evil powers of this world and repenting of your sin, and secondly resisting evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. That can’t be done without being politically engaged on behalf of my faith commitment.”
The next topic was religious leaders’ highly-debated role in guiding their congregation’s political decision-making. “Many times,” the pastor said, “it is the clergy who are the most familiar with the nuance and tradition regarding particular aspects of faith life. In my faith tradition, clergy typically have more in depth knowledge of scripture, which is a core aspect of our faith tradition.” Despite this, Pastor Mattox said that it is the clergymen’s duty “to be creative in how our congregations consider their faith commitments in tandem with their political decisions … endorsing a candidate from the pulpit is too simplistic a method.”
Speaking specifically of the Johnson Amendment, Mattox claimed it acts as a “good guide for being more creative and less biased in how we guide our congregations to engage their faith in political decisions.”
Pastor Mattox agreed that bringing politics into churches could divide congregations, but added that “almost every public stance has the propensity to divide a congregation.” This means that one of the goals of the clergy is to “foster communities where such dynamic, challenging conversations can happen without the result being division. Holding tension in balance with love for one another is the aim.”
He noted that the Apostle Paul’s addressed “elements of divisiveness in the church, which he understood to be the spiritual Body of Christ.” In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he wrote “Rather than speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:15-16)
Pastor Mattox says he finds very little conflict with the Johnson Amendment. Having a “personal and professional commitment to uphold the separation of church and state,” the pastor also serves as a board member of the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance, “which publicly seeks to uphold that separation, especially amidst a climate where politicians seek to make religious commitments matters of government sponsored statements.” He specifically pointed to Oklahoma state representatives’ persistence in erecting the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the State Capitol. Mattox stands in opposition to that kind of action, and likewise in any form it manifests from behind the pulpit. “I feel like I’m free to make any political statements I want outside the pulpit,” he said, “and from my personal social media platforms; my concern is less legal and more social and with maintaining the integrity of my leadership role.”
Speaking of Trump’s actual ability to repeal the Johnson Amendment, Mattox emphasized the fact that the president’s proposed repeal (as he lacks the actual power to repeal a law without the consent of Congress) “simply makes official what is already practiced.” He went on to explain that “The Pulpit Freedom Sunday movement of Alliance Defending Freedom ‘non-profit’ has been goading the IRS on the issue for almost a decade now, sending recorded sermons including political endorsements to the IRS. But none have been prosecuted.”
“It seems to me that most of the energy around ’explicitly political sermons’ and ‘“politicking from the pulpit’ has been focused on matters of human sexuality and endorsing candidates who claim to endorse some ‘Bible-Based understanding’ of marriage (whatever that is.) It is interesting to me that not many pastors seem intent on breaking the law to endorse candidates based on much larger themes of the Bible — (such as concern for the poor and the alien and the disenfranchised or against violence). Therefore, since the whole effort to undo it seems to be steered by organizations like the ADF whose talking points seem so obsessive and myopic to me, I’m suspicious of it. Though I’m all for getting rid of laws no one is enforcing anyway, I think the intent of the Johnson amendment is helpful for the church. It keeps preachers from idolizing our political opinions or candidates. It’s not my pulpit, after all.”
Even Republicans seeking to repeal the law have plans to retain a few of its merits. At this point, based on what political dialogue it looks unlikely there will be much compromise between Trump and legislators, and the Johnson Amendment is more likely to receive a brief flash of controversy and fame without changing.