In a recent editorial (“IRS Should not Enforce Silence from the Pulpit“), the Boston Globe gave a nuanced and thoughtful (if brief) critique of the current state of the law. And, in fact, I agree with their position.
As I (and the Globe) see it, the problem with the so-called “Johnson Amendment” which prohibits churches and other tax-exempt groups from specifically endorsing candidates is not that the law exists, but in how it is enforced by the IRS. In fact, it’s a bit of a morass, with varying standards applied in various cases with varying degrees of zeal on the part of the IRS’s representatives.
As a minister, I do not specifically endorse (or condemn) candidates from the pulpit. (Although, I doubt anyone is in the dark about my political leanings!)
On the other hand, I have known of ministers who have condemned (or endorsed) specific political candidates from the pulpit in various ways, and I feel – even if it were allowed by the law – this is a seriously flawed approach, from many different points of view. I have even known ministers who have allowed campaigning politicians to give speeches from their pulpit, in clear violation of the Johnson Amendment.
Aside from the very clear “First Amendment” issues (regarding both Separation of Church and State and Freedom of Speech), I see such endorsements as a Pastoral failure: it is insensitive and dismissive, if not blind to, the feelings and experience of many who are in our congregations. Ministers who make such a stand often find themselves in hot water with their congregations for precisely that reason, and rightly so.
However, that does not mean we should avoid all political speech from the Pulpit. It is important that we provide our congregations with ways of connecting their faith to their citizenship: what does our faith teach us about “caring for our neighbor,” accepting those who are “other,” or caring for those who are unable to speak for themselves? And, how can our faith with respect to these issues find expression in our own individual response to the issues of the day? These are important questions, and ones we must speak to in our roles as a spiritual leader within our communities.
What’s needed is clarity and consistency, not abolishment, of this rule. All too often, the IRS will avoid taking on organizations that are politically well connected or have deep financial resources at their disposal. This is understandable, since a single call by a Church to their Congressman often creates a world of trouble for the IRS, or those at the IRS who are involved in such actions. And yet, churches which are not wealthy or well connected will face draconian punishments: huge fines, loss of tax exempt status, for exactly the same offenses that other churches engage in without concern for the repercussions.
So, the way in which the Johnson Amendment is enforced should be well known, and consistently enforced – regardless of how much political influence or wealth a particular church or tax exempt organization may have. This means isolating the process from political interference, and – I think – ensuring it is interpreted narrowly: allowing discussion and education on various political issues and positions, but prohibiting the endorsement of specific candidates, or engaging in actions or making statements that are clearly in support of a single candidate. I would advocate that this should not be an IRS mandate at all, but enforced in other ways.
Simply “destroying” the Johnson Amendment will muddy the waters, eliminating even what little guidance the IRS has with regards to enforcing what “Separation of Church and State” and creating a legal and moral morass with little or no benefit for anyone.
Copyright (c) 2017, Allen Vander Meulen III.
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