Johnson Amendment is worth saving

The 1954 Johnson Amendment is a Jeffersonian tenet that separates church and state.

As an ordained minister, I have a regular weekly podium from which I can preach. But today, I am writing as a concerned citizen.

The Supreme Court bestowed First Amendment rights upon corporations and other policy action organizations through their Citizens United ruling, allowing companies to financially participate in political campaigns without the requirement to either identify member contributors or adhere to reasonable and worthwhile monetary limits. And due in large part to the well-choreographed, deflection and denial tactics by some congressional beneficiaries of that ruling, our democracy — originally “for and by the American people” — is now rapidly becoming an oligarchy “for and by PACs and businesses,” where those who can easily afford it buy influence in order to dictate election outcomes.

But the power granted through the Citizens United ruling does not appear to be enough. Nestled dangerously within the latest proposed tax reform bill comes a provision that will both serve to exacerbate the problem of dark money in politics and, at the same time, breach a Jeffersonian tenet separating church and state. Proponents have included in their draft legislation repeal of the 1954 Johnson Amendment which prevents churches and other nonprofit, religious institutions from campaigning — from their pulpits or newsletters — either for or against issues or candidates.

Under threat of forfeiture of their 501(c)(3) tax-advantaged status, religious institutions have been prohibited from advocating for or against ballot issues or office seekers, and from accepting “public” dollars to fund “private” passions. And, under the present law, governments and businesses have been prohibited from asserting undue or manipulative influence on not-for-profit, religious service providers and within places previously reserved for worship. The Johnson Amendment has worked well to keep these interests separate for more than 60 years.

By and large, I believe there has been a general adherence to the advocacy restrictions, and pastors have regulated themselves: 1) out of respect for the law, and 2) out of fear of being so politically vulnerable. However, a notable few — religious universities; some megachurch and mainline preachers; as well as outspoken tax-exempt executives – have already stepped over that line. And many of those are now among the president’s advisors, regular attendees at his prayer breakfasts and, undoubtedly, eagerly awaiting legal validation to keep up their efforts.

Except in rare and egregious instances, the IRS has either been unable or unwilling to enforce the separation the Johnson Amendment requires. But, rollback of this important ordinance altogether could serve to cloud distinct differences in purpose between the religious and secular, encourage mobilization of “the faithful” for political action, and permit ideologues and corporations to buy church influence and receive yearly tax deductions for politically-motivated but “charitable” contributions, nonetheless.

My great fear is that, along with negotiating naming rights (imagine if you will: Charter church, Safeco synagogue, Target temple, Walmart window, Koch cry room, or Halliburton hall), such “dark” donations in church offering plates will come with equally great expectations. Just as so many Americans have grown weary of lobbyists compromising congressional resolve and their influence thwarting any significant or meaningful lawmaking, I expect to see agenda-setting by these same corporate donors to begin compromising church or religious missions and messages, and threatening our reasons for doing and being, as well.

Concerned candidates and motivated voters have aligned — both for the Johnson Amendment and against Citizens United — and religious leaders have joined institutions and nonprofits across the country to oppose such irresponsible legislation. And yet, members of Congress, who have in the past, misinterpreted or mischaracterized the “mandates” they have received, either do not hear (or will not hear) the dissent being communicated now by “We, the people.” And their deafness, on this critical church-state separation issue, will have disastrous consequences.

Bill Van Nostran serves as pastor at First Presbyterian — “The Yellow Church” on the corner of 11th and Grand Avenue in Astoria.

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