At the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday morning, President Donald Trump promised to “totally destroy the Johnson Amendment,” which prohibits tax-exempt nonprofits, like churches, from endorsing particular political candidates. Although this move is popular with some conservative churches, it would fundamentally reverse a more than 60-year tradition that protects both our religious institutions and our very democracy.
In 1954, it was not controversial for a Republican congress and a Republican president to amend the tax code to make it illegal for tax-exempt churches to endorse particular candidates from the pulpit. These government leaders were not trying to secularize society or to undercut one particular religious tradition. They wisely recognized the danger of this kind of mutual interference both to churches and to the government.
Churches in our country have always taken prophetic and often unpopular positions on various laws and government policies. The Johnson Amendment does not prohibit churches from taking a stand on issues. We can promote our positions on particular ballot initiatives. We can be public in our preaching and in our support for issues like marriage equality, affordable health care or school lunch programs. Churches only are prohibited from endorsing candidates.
What is the difference between taking a stand on a ballot proposition and supporting a candidate? The short answer is that a proposition cannot pay for your support (or opposition) in the way that a politician can.
I have personal experience with these ethical issues. Not long ago, I was approached by a candidate’s political campaign about having an event at a church I served. Lawyers both from the campaign and others assured me that we could invite the opposition candidate for a similar event (and that he would likely decline) and that, as a result, everything would be perfectly fair and legal.
But even if we were somehow not violating the letter of the law, it became clear that this would certainly be against the spirit of the law. If we had supported the candidate in this way, we would have drastically altered our relation to our government. We would have created a dangerous obligation for the candidate.
One could imagine unscrupulous spiritual leaders, in effect, asking what our politicians would give them in exchange for delivering 40,000 votes. Government officials might reward a particular religious denomination with appointed offices or favorable legislative treatment. Successful candidates might even seek retribution on religious communities that opposed them in the election.
In any event, politicians would suddenly have a strong incentive to exercise undue influence in religious communities, and church leaders would be tempted to change their message in exchange for political influence.
If this were not enough, allowing churches to endorse candidates could lead to political organizations that were, in fact, disguised as churches. Donations through churches would become a way for wealthy individuals to circumvent campaign disclosure rules.
A climate with all these incentives for corruption might very well lead to the end of special tax status for churches and other nonprofits.
There has never been a greater need for public settings that bring together people of different political views. Churches better accomplish this when their leaders are prohibited from publicly endorsing particular candidates.
We need spaces outside the commercial world in which everything is bought and sold. The people I visit in hospitals and prisons do not pay me. The people who use our homeless shelters, soup kitchens and senior programs receive our services as a gift. Our larger society recognizes the value of spaces like this and supports them. They will until we give our fellow citizens reason for cynicism through the kind of corruption that naturally arises when churches make political endorsements.
The Very Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young is the ninth dean of Grace Cathedral.