Non-profits and religious organizations have previously been barred from partaking in political action by a 1954 law called the Johnsson Amendment. While religion has had a prominent position in American politics for a long time, the repeal of this law could transform churches into powerful and wealthy political players with the ability to act similarly to super PACs — but with less supervision and transparency.
The rollback of this 1954 law, created by Lyndon B. Johnson to lessen the influence of his conservative non-profit critics, was passed by the House earlier this month as part of their proposed tax bill. Whether this will be part of the Senate tax bill is still uncertain. It is not included at this time, but one senator who has yet to declare his full-fledged support for the Senate tax bill has expressed a desire to include a rollback of the Johnson Amendment. The New York Times reports that Senate leaders could perhaps include the removal of the law in the tax bill as a way of securing senator James Lankford’s vote. Since both Hill Republicans and Trump are working hard to pass this tax bill in order to avoid another embarrassing legislative failure, it is safe to say that they will do all that they can to get this through. Their desperation for a win could drive them to include the removal of the Johnsson Amendment in the Senate Tax bill as a nod some of the more religious and conservative members.
This would allow churches to spend money in political races and officially endorse candidates, while still not paying any taxes.
So who wants the Johnson Amendment gone, and why? Well, the people that this rollback would benefit the most are wealthy religious groups that also have a lot of influence over a group of voters. So which demographic usually puts religious issues high up on their political agenda? The answer to that is the religious right, such as evangelicals who are also known as “value voters.” Value voters care about issues like a candidates stance on abortion, gay marriage, and religious freedom. These voters are also represented by wealthy non-profit groups with a lot of money they could use to influence the political scene.
Although the removal of the Johnsson amendment is supported by many groups that have a lot of influence in the Republican party, there is still a large number of groups who are strongly opposed to this change. The New York Times reports that many religious and non-profit leaders say that this “could blur the line between charity and politics.” This is due to the fact that churches could take tax-deductible donations and use them to fund political candidates and pay for ads. If charities and churches were to attempt this right now the IRS could remove their tax-exempt status, forcing them to pay for all of their donations.
Tim Delaney, President, and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits has this to say about the House bill; “Newly politicized churches will receive a taxpayer-subsidized payoff of more than a billion dollars each election cycle if a provision tucked in the back of the House GOP tax bill passes.”
However, peoples opposition doesn’t only stem from a worry that tax-deductible money could be used in political races, but also from a worry that government subsidies and donations could be withheld from organizations who won’t support the politicians with power over the money. This would pressure groups into taking sides in political debates even though they don’t want to out of fear of donors and politicians pressuring them in exchange for funding. It is easy to see how a people in power could leverage their power to get endorsements of religious groups and non-profits.
Not only are many organization opposed to this change. 79 percent of American say that it says it is inappropriate for pastors to endorse a candidate in church and Three-quarters say churches shouldn’t endorse candidates. It is clear that the repeal of the Johnsson Amendment isn’t popular with many outside of the religious right.
If the Senate were to include this in the tax bill it could result in a blur of the lines between church and state. Suddenly religious groups could pump millions into political campaigns without paying taxes on those contributions. The rollback of the Johnsson Amendment would increase the influence of special interests in American politics at the expense of voters.
Photo: Dwight Burdette (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons