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Church politicking: Should churches be able to endorse political candidates?

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A June 22 WaPo headline for a story by Michelle Boorstein and Julie Zauzmer.
A June 22 WaPo headline for a story by Michelle Boorstein and Julie Zauzmer.

Thrilling Christian conservative audience, Trump vows to lift ban on politicking, appoint antiabortion judges

That recent Washington Post headline is raising an issue that FFRF confronts regularly, one we’ve even sued the IRS over: church politicking. Given the news coverage, it’s worth revisiting some of the reasons why this “ban” exists.

The law is simple: Tax-exempt organizations, including churches, cannot engage in politicking and retain their tax-exemption.

Tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations may either  maintain neutrality and stay tax-exempt or endorse candidates and pay taxes. The choice is theirs. As the law stands, religious leaders are free to endorse whomever they choose, so long as they do so on their own time in their capacity as citizens, not from the pulpit and not as church officials using church resources. This rule is known as the Johnson Amendment, after Lyndon B. Johnson, the Texas senator and later president who helped pass the law in 1954.

FFRF is incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. As such, it cannot endorse or oppose any particular candidate for any office. At FFRF, we work to ensure churches comply with this law, reporting churches that violate this rule to the IRS. FFRF attorneys just sent the IRS letters about Hillary Clinton campaigning at churches that endorsed her during services.

Read more: Our IRS letters about St. Stephen  and Canaan Christian Churches

This rule is not a burden on free speech or religious free exercise. Tax exemption is not a right, but a privilege—a privilege that comes with strings attached. The government is not required to extend tax exemptions. Churches and nonprofits give up certain rights in return for the substantial benefit of tax exemption. The point of nonprofits is to provide educational and charitable services. Their resources are supposed to be directed toward the betterment of society as a whole, not partisan politics. That’s why they are exempt in the first place.

Religion and politics are a dangerous mix. James Madison wrote, “to employ religion as an engine of civil policy” was “an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.” He also said, “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

Without the Johnson Amendment, official church doctrine could include which candidate congregants must vote for. The most pernicious aspect of church-politicking is the power which religious leaders hold over the mind of the individual. Willing churchgoers could be excommunicated for failing to adhere to church voting doctrine or, far worse, a congregant might believe they will suffer eternal torture if they vote for the “wrong” candidate.

The pressure churches would be able to exert — spiritual blackmail would not be an inappropriate term here — would forever alter our political system. Elections would cease to be about ideas and become pandering to churches for souls/votes.

Not only would the law legalize electoral coercion, it would subsidize it. Tax-exempt entities are in essence taxpayer-subsidized. Citizens pay more taxes because tax-exempt organizations pay none. They have a free ride on the taxpayer’s back. Without the Johnson Amendment, 501(c)(3)s would quickly become unaccountable, unregulated PACs.

Additionally, if this amendment were not in place, serious financial issues for churches and the government would erupt. Churches are exempted from reporting any financial information to the IRS, unlike all other tax-exempt charities. Churches are a financial black hole. Money goes in and nobody knows what happens to it. Church donations could and would be siphoned into political campaigns with absolutely no accountability to anyone.

We do not want office seekers beholden to churches. Our godless Constitution establishes a secular government, and if officials in that government are required to pander to churches, the wall of separation will be quickly dismantled.

There is nothing else preventing churches from getting involved in politics. But they shouldn’t expect us to pay for it. The choice is theirs: tax exemption or political power. Given the greed of American churches, I can understand why they want both. But our secular republic relies on keeping this amendment intact.

Photo by Chris Line. See his work .
Photo by Chris Line. Click to see more of his work.

FFRF is a 501(c)(3) non profit organization and is prohibited by federal tax law from being seen as endorsing or opposing any particular candidate for office. Nothing in this post is endorses any candidate. FFRF is dedicated to keeping state and church separate and educating about nontheism. We depend on member support, please join today.

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