By Michael-Leonard Creditor
Our president has a bug up his ass about the Johnson Amendment, part of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 prohibiting 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from conducting political campaign activities to intervene in elections to public office. He thinks it unfairly restricts free speech.
But here’s the thing: the Johnson Amendment doesn’t stop church leaders from speaking out. Firstly, political activity is allowed so long as pastors stop short of directly or indirectly endorsing. But, even if pastors do actually endorse a candidate or ballot measure, only one church is known to have actually lost its tax-exemption due to electioneering. Also, some defiant clergy have repeatedly and for years, deliberately disregarded the Johnson Amendment. Some have even sent transcripts of their speeches to the IRS. That one church that lost its exemption, that was back in 1995.
All this rule does is pose a choice for clergy: do you wanna be a church or in politics? If you want the tax-exemption of being a church, you should simply stay out of politics. Can’t do both; choose. And this gets to the heart of the whole separation clause thing. I think the amendment solidifies the separation-of-church-and-state intent of the founding fathers.
There is a common misconception regarding the famous “separation clause” of the Constitution embodied in the First Amendment. Because it reads [in part], “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” many people think that the founding fathers objected to government-established churches. I beg to differ. While many governments had previously supported one church or another, the founders’ objection was of church established government or, more to the point, government being unduly influenced – or even co-opted – by religious establishments.
The reason for the First Amendment specifically prohibiting laws “respecting an establishment of religion” was the Founders’ fear of one of the churches attempting to influence or take over the federal government. What they feared was the actions of the church but, since they were creating a nation, they could only proscribe the actions of the government.
There is only one instance I know of a government creating a church: Henry VIII of England created the Anglican Church after the Roman pope refused to annul his marriage, mainly so he could dispose of one queen and take another. Yes, it could be said that the Church of England was born for the purpose of adultery.)
However, there have been many cases throughout history of churches influencing or co-opting a government or governmental body. Probably the most egregious example would be the “Spanish” Inquisition. Even the novel The Three Musketeers is based upon Cardinal Richelieu’s attempt to take over the throne of France. In the United States, thanks to the “Separation Clause,” this has been attempted, but never successfully.
Religious and church-based groups regularly espouse certain political views and contribute to political organizations, parties, and candidates. The actions of religions – specifically the Mormon Church – in the battle against same-sex marriage, is the most blatant recent example of a church affecting government. Other attempts, albeit on a smaller scale, occur practically every day.
Again, the Johnson Amendment gets to the heart of ensuring the First Amendment. What if a religious candidate proclaimed that if elected, he would do his utmost to outlaw all birth control drugs and devices, “because the bible tells me to do so.” If so, then that person should not hold public office in the United States. Not because of a “religious test” against that candidate because of his fundamentalist faith, but rather because of his attempt to “establish” religion as the ultimate source and sanction of secular U.S. law (contrary to the First Amendment to the Constitution) and to impose his religious beliefs upon citizens that do not share these beliefs. Similarly, if a candidate of any religious persuasion were to suggest that persons of other faiths, or no faith, must be given a diminished citizenship status in our republic, then that candidate likewise disregards the establishment clause of the first amendment (“prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”). It is not hard to see Trump’s “Muslim ban” executive order as such an edict.
Those who insist that “this is a Christian nation” are of such a type, as was Mitt Romney when he asserted that he would not appoint a Muslim to high office in his administration. With his pronouncement at the Feb. 2 National Prayer Breakfast, President Trump has contravened the Constitution and likely violated his oath of office.
That same day, Republican lawmakers introduced legislation that would allow all 501(c)(3) organizations to support political candidates, as long as any associated spending was minimal.
But, here’s the final irony of the issue: the president and his congressional followers are totally out of step with the religious element that they purport to support. That’s what LifeWay Research found out. The evangelical polling firm 2012 survey of Protestant pastors found 87 percent said they should not make political endorsements from the pulpit. The same company surveyed church-goers last year and found nearly 80 percent said it is inappropriate for their clergy to endorse a candidate in church and 75 percent said that churches themselves should make no endorsements.
About Michael-Leonard Creditor:
- Born in Tucson AZ; reared in Brooklyn NY; lived in Portland OR; currently resides in Clairemont
- Three main professions: photographer, folklorist, radio program host
- Philosopher and life-long Liberal