David Saperstein, director emeritus of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, is an ordained rabbi who served as U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom from 2015 to 2017. Amanda Tyler is the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
At the National Prayer Breakfast a little more than a year ago, President Trump vowed to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a federal law prohibiting houses of worship, charitable nonprofits and private foundations from endorsing, opposing or financially supporting political candidates and parties. Fortunately for religious congregations — and the entire charitable sector — he has not yet fulfilled his promise.
Trump’s failure to eliminate the Johnson Amendment is not for lack of will. Members of Congress pursued similar goals to the president, attempting to include language that would weaken the law as part of the tax reform bill, but that effort ultimately failed. And at one point, Trump described his goal of eliminating the prohibition on election activity as potentially his “greatest contribution to Christianity — and other religions.”
We, along with thousands of other religious leaders and more than 100 religious denominations and organizations, vehemently disagree. Considering the Pew Research Center tells us that roughly three-fourths of the world’s population lives in nations with serious restrictions on religious freedom, we are confident the president can find far more effective ways to enhance our nation’s religious-freedom efforts.
Clergy and congregants worry that changing the law would have a divisive impact on their faith communities. Our houses of worship are among the few places that people of different cultural, political and ethnic backgrounds can find the sense of unity and comity so desperately needed in our nation today. There are enough differences over theology, music, liturgy and clergy without importing America’s partisan electoral divides into our pews. These concerns cut across all religious groups and political persuasions, as public surveys have shown, with overwhelming opposition to changing the law to allow taxpayer-subsidized political ads from the pulpit.
We both come from traditions with a long history of prophetic witnesses speaking truth to power. Religious leaders have been able to speak with moral authority on the great issues of their day precisely because they have operated independently from government and its officials.
We don’t believe the claims that changing the law is required by free-speech or religious-liberty principles. We have devoted our careers to defending religious freedom for all and see this debate as one of tax policy, not First Amendment rights. Under current rules, clergy can speak on political and moral issues as they see fit, even during election season. In a personal capacity, without the use of church dollars, clergy have the same rights as anyone else to endorse or oppose candidates or parties — and even to run and hold public office. What they cannot do is engage in partisan election activity using a government subsidy in the form of tax exemptions and tax-deductible contributions for their houses of worship.
Allowing partisan political activity by tax-exempt houses of worship goes far beyond a single sermon. Imagine that in every sermon for the six months leading up to the election, a pastor endorsed various candidates and reiterated those endorsements. Suppose in every regular bulletin or email over those six months, the pastor or church leaders focused on endorsements. Nothing would stop a church, synagogue or mosque from using its volunteers to phone-bank or canvass for an endorsed candidate or pass the plate for political contributions at the same time it accepted tithes and offerings.
These scenarios are not hyperbolic hypotheticals. Abolishing the Johnson Amendment, according to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation’s estimate of the recent tax bill, would result in billions of dollars in nontransparent, anonymous political campaign spending redirected to 501(c)(3) organizations, including houses of worship, to take advantage of the tax-deductibility of such donations and the exemption for houses of worship from reporting their donors.
There is tragic irony in Johnson Amendment opponents’ claims to want to limit the power of the Internal Revenue Service to interfere with the religious affairs of houses of worship. With the current total prohibition in place, the IRS has rarely acted against a church for electioneering. But a new permissive standard, specifically the language that lawmakers attempted to add to the tax bill, would have given the IRS a mandate to interpret undefined terms such as “ordinary course,” “de minimis” and “incremental.” If the law is changed and the IRS has the resources and the will to enforce the law, we could see troubling entanglement of the IRS in a church’s religious and financial affairs.
It’s easy to see why politicians think they will win by accumulating additional endorsements and contributions, particularly from religious institutions held in high regard by communities. But houses of worship and those who rely on them know they have too much to lose to throw their good name behind a particular party or candidate and allow their coffers to become political slush funds.
Trump will return to the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, and he may take the opportunity to double down on his fight against the Johnson Amendment. He should instead reverse course and stop politicizing religion.