For the first 200 years of our nation’s history, pastors across America regularly preached sermons on the culturally relevant issues of the day. Yes, they preached on God’s plan for salvation, but they also preached on things like taxes, war, and politics, regularly going so far as to point out the candidates’ positions on the issues and endorsing those who upheld the values they espoused. That all changed in 1954 when Senator Lyndon Johnson introduced what later became known as the Johnson Amendment. During Johnson’s 1954 bid for re-election, he was opposed by two powerful Texas businessmen who felt that he was soft on Communism. The first was oilman H.L. Hunt who started a non-profit called Facts Forum in 1951. And the other was Frank Gannet, the newspaper mogul, who created a non-profit called the Committee for Constitutional Government in 1937. Both of these gentlemen used their non-profits to oppose Johnson and support his opponent. On July 2nd, in an effort to silence his opponents, Johnson, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, offered an amendment to a tax bill that was adopted by unanimous voice vote. The amendment banned any organization with an IRS 501(c)(3) tax status from making any electioneering communication, that is, endorsing or opposing candidates. As we have talked about in the past, bills can have unintended consequences, and the unintended consequences of this bill continue to echo through every election cycle right up to today. In banning non-profits, Johnson, by his own admission, had also inadvertently banned churches from speaking about candidates. He said this was never his intention. Whether it was or not, 200 years of religious free speech came to an end and the church went silent. They were, and still are, afraid of losing their tax exempt status. The Johnson Amendment never had anything to do with the so-called “Separation of Church and State.” It had everything to do with a powerful U.S. Senator using that power to silence his opponents and ensure his own re-election.
Now pastors and clergy across America are speaking out and daring the IRS to remove their tax exempt status in an annual event called Pulpit Freedom Sunday, most recently held last Sunday, October 2nd. Thousands of pastors since 2008 have recorded themselves endorsing candidates in direct violation of the Johnson Amendment. Those recordings are then sent to the IRS in an effort to get this issue into court. So far, the IRS won’t bite, because they know the regulation is an unconstitutional ban on free speech.
The issue is so important that two members of the U.S. House of Representatives last week introduced the Free Speech Fairness Act. The Act would effectively overturn the Johnson Amendment and restore religious liberty. Sensing a way to score points with the faith community, Presidential candidate, Donald Trump, has pledged to overturn the Johnson Amendment if he’s elected. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” America is suffering, because the churches have remained silent for far too long. We’re like a great ship of state without a rudder drifting aimlessly. It’s time to rebuild that rudder, and repealing the Johnson Amendment is a great place to start.