Policing the Pulpit & The Johnson Amendment- “People of faith do not want partisan political fights infiltrating their houses of worship.”
by Bill Lockwood
In a letter sent to members of Congress earlier this month, 99 signatory churches, including Baptist and Muslim churches, appealed to lawmakers not to repeal the 1954 Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment, a revision to the tax code sponsored by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson and agreed upon by a compliant Congress, “updated” the language of the IRS code to prohibit non-profit organizations, especially churches, from actively participating in political elections. It was effectively a gag order on the pulpits.
Why was the future president so intent on policing the pulpit via the tax code—threatening churches with removal of tax-exempt status if they logged in on “political issues?” Because conservative churches in the state of Texas, Baptist churches and churches of Christ, for example, had been a thorn in Johnson’s side during the election processes that put him in Congress. Preachers in that era had been regularly involved in Anti-Communist efforts and many of them connected Johnson with philosophies of socialism. Johnson had his revenge.
Now, more than 50 years later, President Trump has promised during the presidential campaign to rid America of the “very unfair” Johnson Amendment so that “great pastors and ministers, rabbis and priests and everybody can go and …participate in the election process.”
Just for the record, preachers worth their salt do not need government approval; IRS code or no tax code; or President Trump’s assistance– to speak forthrightly on the issues of the day—whether it be abortion, homosexuality, evolution, slavery, or the ungodly forcible transfer of wealth flying under the false flag of “social justice,” or even to object to women in the pulpit. But we appreciate his desire to erase unconstitutional restrictions.
The problem, however, is that many pulpiteers are fearful and timid. They like the government control because, as Chuck Baldwin correctly puts it, it gives them cover for their cowardice. The letter from the 99 in part reads, “Current law serves as a valuable safeguard for the integrity of our charitable sector and campaign finance system. People of faith do not want partisan political fights infiltrating their houses of worship.”
No, what these preachers really want is a big excuse to give to their members as to why they steadfastly refuse to address the burning issues of the day. Wringing their hands when accosted by furious pew-sitters, the pulpiteers squeak out that the “government disallows” them from addressing these issues “lest we lose our tax exempt status.” Cannot these denominational overlords manage their own flocks without grasping for government aid?
What is Happening?
First, the Johnson Amendment is flagrantly anti-Constitutional. The First Amendment clearly settles the issue. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”—meaning there would be no state-sponsored religious institutions. “Or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech …” – government is in a “hands-off” mode as far as monitoring, suggesting or regulating the speech in any church-related or religious institution. The freedom is God-given and the First Amendment promises that government intrusion will never occur, period.
IRS Commissioner in 2006, Mark W. Everson, showed that he understood perfectly well the issue. Speaking at the City Club of Cleveland, Ohio, he opined, “Freedom of speech and religious liberty are essential elements of our democracy. But the Supreme Court has in essence held that tax exemption is a privilege, not a right, stating, ‘Congress has not violated [an organization’s] First Amendment activities by declining to subsidize its First Amendment activities.”
In other words, the tax code extends “privileges” not “rights” by means of exemption and the punishing of churches for “political” speech or activity via taxation does not violate their free speech! That is the government position.
This is the problem with big government to begin with. It takes in hand to decide what it will and will not allow as far as “free speech” is concerned. Politicians apparently refuse to confess that free speech is a God-bestowed right by Natural Law, and prefer to suppose that it is a grant from themselves.
Second, the heart of the issue is to define what is “political” speech and what is “not?” Who decides? As long as we allow the government to set the parameters of discussion here, it will stuff a sock in the mouth of preachers. Is social justice (aka socialism) solely a “political” issue? It is in essence the theft of money from one person or one group and a re-distribution to another. This includes education, health care, environmental regulations, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rules, and scores of other schemes. Social Justice is, in reality, an immoral concept.
What about slavery, homosexuality, abortion, or cloning? Slavery was once a part of the law of the land. A “political issue.” Should pulpits have remained silent on this moral atrocity? At least the Founding generation were not devious as have been the Democrats and Republicans of the current generation for they would have included government control over the pulpits of that era which united to condemn it.
Third, the 99 churches are outright hypocritical. The National Council of Churches (NCC), representing thousands of churches, has a website that reads like a laundry list created by Karl Marx himself. Under “A 21st Century Social Creed” the NCC’s “vision of society” includes “civil, political, and economic rights” for all people; “employment for all at a family sustaining living wage”; a “system of criminal rehabilitation”; “enactment of policies” to abate “hunger and poverty”; “universal public education” and “healthcare”; “sustainable use of earth’s resources”; “tax and budget policies to reduce disparity between rich and poor”; “sustainable communities”; and the list goes on.
Each of these issues includes proposals of political policies to be enacted to achieve them. But now the 99 churches want to be free from politics and wishes the government to serve as the “valuable safeguard” to ensure it? Absolutely unbelievable.
No. What the 99 signatories wish is that the liberal politicians like a Barack Obama continue trampling the Word of God with hob-nail boots and the pew-packers continue to swallow it. Preachers have not only a Constitutional right to address the issues of the day in their churches, but an obligation to do so. This includes speaking out against ungodly practices of politicians as well as exposing their wicked stratagems that they place into law. We need no more government policing of the pulpit. What mankind needs is not only a Free Market economy but a free marketplace of religious ideas.