Not-So Hidden Figures: The Costs of Repealing the Johnson Amendment

Political Participation for Religious Organizations Presents Divine Opportunity; Results Could Spell Judgement Day

by Zachary Borodkin

A few weeks after his inauguration, President Trump signed an Executive Order banning flights from seven countries in the Middle East; the backlash was immediate. That same week, Trump attended the National Prayer Breakfast. The first was held in 1953 and has been attended by every president since Eisenhower. In 1954, then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson attached an amendment to a bill revising laws in the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Tax Code. The Johnson Amendment, named for its primary sponsor, states that churches and nonprofit organizations are prohibited both directly and indirectly from engaging in all political campaigns on behalf of any candidate for elected office. During his speech, among the brouhaha stirred by the ban, Trump vowed to “destroy” the Amendment because it restricts free speech.

Sound familiar? It should. This Amendment mirrors the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, a.k.a. the McCain-Feingold Act, which banned corporations and unions from purchasing media to support or oppose any candidate directly after an election. The 2009 Supreme Court Case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) struck down that law, deeming it unconstitutional, allowing for unlimited spending on media regarding candidates for public office. It also gave birth to the Super PAC. Groups like Americans for Prosperity (the Koch Brothers) and Priorities USA Action, who backed Hillary Clinton, put millions of dollars into local and federal campaigns. Repealing the Johnson Amendment would allow religious groups and churches that were largely kept out of the political realm to become involved. This would weaken the barrier between church and state.

The mind is complex and can change at a moment’s notice. Whether Trump will follow through on this promise is still anyone’s guess. If he does, an unseen consequence would be the inclusion of Muslim religious groups. His call to ban Muslims from entering the US during the campaign would be countered at a much higher level by Imams and organization leaders who would use places of worship and institutions as leverage. This would end up being a nightmare scenario for the very people that Trump is appealing to. Imagine those same Imams endorsing Muslim candidates for elected office to pushback against Trump’s agenda. Mix those candidates with the protesters and you have yourself a powder keg at a time when civility is eroding public discourse. The opportunity to repeal might seem divine, but it will end up casting an even brighter light on a group that is still in the shadows of the Crusades and 9/11. The 1986 Tax Reform Act passed under Reagan left the Johnson Amendment unchanged. Trump would be wise to take a lesson from one of his biggest political influences by simply leaving it alone.

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