How Repealing The Johnson Amendment Harms Religious Liberty

Earlier this month at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, the newly-inaugurated president of the United States repeated his campaign vow to repeal the Johnson Amendment, the 1954 provision in the U.S. tax code that prohibits all 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations from endorsing political candidates.

What is the Johnson Amendment?

The Johnson Amendment was an IRS tax reform bill that was successfully passed in Congress by Senator Lyndon Johnson in 1954, the same man who would later become president in 1963 following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Churches can invite a candidate to speak at their local church if it invites the opposing candidate; and ministries, houses of worship, denominations and religious individuals can speak out on the moral and spiritual issues of the day, including getting involved in ballot referenda. But the Johnson Amendment is a prohibition on churches and other houses of worship to prevent churches from publicly favoring or endorsing one candidate over another. This includes the strict prohibition on financing them or organizing to campaign for them.

Just to be clear, the attempt to repeal the Johnson Amendment is not about restoring “free speech” but rather about politicians receiving tax-deductible campaign financing from churches in return for giving churches unprecedented political power. As I explain below, I believe that repealing this amendment will be instrumental in creating the prophetic combination of church and state that we as Adventists have been warning about for many years, and I am extremely concerned about where this is heading.

A Divisive Proposition

If you donate money to your favorite candidate for public office, that donation is not tax-deductible. But under one of the bills in Congress that would do away with the Johnson Amendment, churches could use up to 25 percent of their church budget to endorse candidates and campaign for them. That means that if your church decided to campaign for a candidate, a significant portion of your offerings could go straight to a political candidate that your pastor or church board decided to support.

Donations will begin to pour into churches that will choose to take on a political mission, as big-time donors try to find ways to “launder” their otherwise taxable campaign donations, and money-grubbing politicians will be knocking on the doors of every church to capture large amounts of “blessed” campaign money.

Even putting the prophetic warning aside, practically speaking, as people who live in the real world, we all hold political views, and there is a good chance that you know somebody in your local church that you disagree with when it comes to politics. Can you imagine what it would be like if your church made an awkward choice to endorse a slate of either Democrats or Republicans? Imagine the potluck discussion! It would make social media seem tame in comparison.

And if you think the current political climate has divided this nation, just wait until pastors and congregations start to argue over which candidate will get 25 percent of their church’s money. Saturday and Sunday mornings may never be the same!

While many organizations, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church, speak out boldly on the issues of the day and get involved in ballot referenda related to policies that could affect us, the repeal of the Johnson Amendment crosses the line because it involves endorsing or opposing particular candidates for office. These are the people who need more money than ever before to run their campaigns, and who will come knocking on the door of your church asking for an endorsement.

Gutting Church Coffers

Now, it is easy to think that nonprofit organizations would love to be able to use the power of the purse to influence candidates, but it would actually diminish giving and put church missions at risk. The same day as the Prayer Breakfast, Tim Delaney, president and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits released the following statement:

Nonprofits are already free to exercise their First Amendment rights to advocate for their missions. Allowing political operatives to push for endorsements would put nonprofits in a position where they become known as Democratic charities or Republican charities and put missions at risk.

Furthermore, those who donate to nonprofits want those contributions to go toward advancing the mission, not toward advancing the careers of politicians or lining the pockets of political consultants. Getting involved in supporting or opposing candidates will have a chilling effect on contributions on which many nonprofits rely."

With the repeal of the Johnson Amendment now on the table, either by congressional action, or an executive order of the president to the IRS not to enforce it, the Adventist Church is taking a very serious look at this issue, and we plan on following Ellen White’s counsel to steer clear of divisive political endorsements. But there is little doubt that the ability to use tax-free donations to endorse candidates will give the churches huge amounts of political power – and this is not a good thing.

The Temptation of Power and a Prophetic Warning

I would go as far as to say that without the Johnson Amendment, some churches will gain huge amounts of political power and will manipulate, dominate, and eventually control the government at all levels through the electoral and policy-making process.

A lot of good Christian people probably think that it would be wonderful if their church had more pull in Washington, but this movement has serious prophetic implications that many people will not see until it is too late. Note Ellen White’s prophetic observation in The Great Controversy regarding Revelation 13:11-15:

“In order for the United States to form an image of the beast [that is, in the likeness of Papal Rome during a 1,260-year period in which the Church manipulated, dominated and controlled both kings and emperors], the religious power [or “powers”] must so control the civil government that the authority of the state will also be employed by the church to accomplish her own ends” (The Great Controversy, page 443, my comments added).

And what happens when the church gets this kind of power?

“Whenever the church has obtained secular power, she has employed it to punish dissent from her doctrines. Protestant churches that have followed in the steps of Rome by forming alliance with worldly powers, have manifested a similar desire to restrict liberty of conscience. An example of this is given in the long-continued persecution of dissenters by the Church of England. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, thousands of nonconformist ministers were forced to leave their churches, and many, both of pastors and people, were subjected to fine, imprisonment, torture, and martyrdom” (The Great Controversy, page 443).

Could that happen in America? Will churches seek to use the power of the state to punish those who dissent from their doctrines? We can already see that some churches would love to have this power and White warns us that we will one day experience similar, if not much more severe, persecution in America. That is why this matters and why we need to work now to preserve liberty of conscience.

Repealing the Johnson Amendment is not about giving pastors “freedom of speech.” Pastors are already able to speak to issues. It is about giving churches the financial power to influence elections using tax-deductible donations. When it is gone, pity the politician who does not have a large congregation willing to fund a political campaign and who has to rely on traditional taxable donations.

An Appeal to Christ’s Kingdom

Before 1954, American churches were fairly disparate, disunited, and pretty much politically isolated, but today Evangelical Protestants and Catholics are very much united on many issues—issues that even we can and do agree with regarding shared concerns. This is, therefore, shaping up to be a prophetically explosive trend. If we fail to ascertain the larger prophetic picture at stake here, we will fail to be the voice of prophetic warning in our otherwise well-meaning attempts to champion and preserve religious freedom, which includes not only the constitutional guarantee to the free exercise of religion, but also the constitutional guarantee that church and state will remain separate.

Once the Johnson Amendment is gone, politicians who want to maintain power will be asking large churches to commit their resources to their elections, and church members will feel religiously compelled to support them. The resulting centers of combined religious and political influence will become the most powerful entities in America, capable of calling on politicians to enforce their plans just as White predicted in The Great Controversy.

Do not fall for the hype that the Johnson Amendment is necessary to restore your pastor’s freedom of speech and see the attempt to repeal it for what it is – a plan by politicians to grab your tax-deductible offering money. Politicians would love to be able to claim a church’s stamp of approval as “God’s favorite candidate” in return for giving churches more political power. And yes, I believe we are watching the seeds being planted in America for the combined church-state power that we have been warned about in Revelation 13.

With tremendous events happening around us on a nearly daily basis, we are the front row of history. We also have the benefit of Bible prophecy and we know where this is going, but that knowledge is not enough. We need to work to preserve liberty of conscience so that we can continue to preach, not a message of political power, but the gospel of Jesus Christ who taught us that His Kingdom is not of this world.

My Philosophy

I believe in freedom of religion, not freedom from religion (i.e., a society free of religion) or freedom to enforce religion, particularly acts of worship. This means upholding both the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment to a high constitutional standard against powerful forces.

Using this standard, government neutrality means that religion and religious institutions must be allowed to thrive freely, but without its official endorsement. The First Amendment, in part, states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Today, some seek to reinterpret the no Establishment provision separating Church and State in ways that would require government to financially support their institutions and enforce their dogmas so as to solve the moral ills of the nation.

Others seek to marginalize the Free Exercise of Religion by failing to recognize that government must have a sufficient compelling interest when lawfully denying or restricting the constitutional right of individuals and institutions of faith to exercise and maintain their religious mission and practices.

Both are harmful to our constitutional health. We believe the Nation’s Founders anticipated this tension. That is why they created an internal check and balance within the very wording of the First Amendment in order to prevent the Country from being overrun by either extreme in the great church-state debate (a puritanical vs. godless society).

Remove this balancing safeguard and our nation’s constitutional guarantees will be lost, and with it our civil and religious freedoms. Sandra Day O’Connor summed it up best: “The religious zealot and the theocrat frighten us in part because we understand only too well their basic impulse. No less frightening is the totalitarian atheist who aspires to a society in which the exercise of religion has no place.”

Gregory W. Hamilton is President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association. This article first appeared on the NRLA website and is reprinted here by permission.

If you respond to this article, please:

Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7878
1 Like

Thanks for publishing this on the Spectrum Website also !

It is a great relief to learn that there are people ‘out there’ who are wisely watching the current developing threats to religious freedoms from outside the SDA church.

It is a shame that similar threats to SDA religious freedoms have already been developing from within.

How can the SDA ‘pot’ ‘call the kettle black’ should other religions begin to simply escalate through the ‘state’, what we have already begun through our own ‘church’ hierarchy ? This is a serious, Satanic, ‘gotcha’.

2 Likes

i agree that this particular promise of trump’s, should he follow through with it, would be an important development for adventists…we’ve been told that the “final movements will be rapid ones”, 9T:11, and that the only thing holding the winds of strife is the sealing of the 144,000 going on now, Rev 7:1-4…i agree with what i think is greg’s point, that while the fulfillment of prophecy is inevitable, we should do what we can to forestall it…what’s prophesied for the end of the world isn’t something a rational person would egg on…

when i think of what’s happening now in our world just in terms of weather anomalies alone - today, Calgary had a 101 yr record high temperature shattered; this past december broke a 112 yr record for snowfall - it feels like we’ve moved into a new gear…the distraction of WO and homosexuality in our church, right when we should be focusing on getting ready for the end, also feels significant…will those of us in the prime of life, and in good health, be alive to see the second coming…will what we’ve learned since we were toddlers in cradle roll really be happening…will we be unable to buy or sell, and like elijah, be hidden in the wilderness and mountains to escape execution, all the while depending on the miraculous intervention of god just to survive…will we see the impersonation of the second coming of christ by satan, and then see the seven last plagues of Rev 16 fall on the world’s great cities…and just as our death sentence draws near, will we actually see christ in the clouds, surrounded by billions of angels, knowing that for us, eternity and everlasting joy has just begun…what will it be like to spend two weeks ascending through orion to the sea of glass, walk into heaven and pick flowers that will never fade, and then sit at a table of silver, many miles in length, and be served supper by christ himself…will we feel comfortable talking to eve, noah, abraham, paul and egw…will they feel comfortable talking to us…what will our guardian angel say to us…

it all seems so fantastic and surreal, and yet strangely possible…every now and then we seem to catch a glimpse of something that could be taken straight out of egw’s great controversy…

1 Like

Of course it is about free speech. That is the reality, what you describe is your fear. That fear was not the reality prior to 1954 and there is little chance that it will be that way in the future. The wisdom of a church endorsing one candidate over another is another question but not really your business for another church and not the governments business.

This tax law has not been enforced since 2009 and it is not likely to be enforceable in the future against churches and other non profit organizations. Many of the non profits are purely political in the first place. For those who think tax law is the way to keep church and state combination that Adventist have been warning about are really off the track. That Adventists still believe their 19th century combination of Christians taking over the government and persecuting Christians over the day of worship must really get out in the world a bit more!

3 Likes

Yes, rapid it is, indeed. This is His timeline. May we all be found faithful. When I see things happening among us I know it’s the End. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen

1 Like

Expanding “religious liberty” to allow people of faith to excercise their religious rights, has unfortunate fallout for our marginalized LGBT community.

It will allow anyone who is homophobic and anti- gay, including corporations, to refuse employment, housing and service to LGBT people.

This demeaned, denigrated and demonized group will have no recourse against the deployment of legitimized discrimination.

3 Likes

This is an excellent essay in which I do not find a scintilla of hyperbole. If the Johnson Amendment is repealed, the NAD should immediately make a public statement that the Seventh-day Adventist Church will continue to speak to pertinent moral issues, as it has done in the past with respect to temperance and slavery, but will remain nonpartisan and not endorse political candidates. In addition, the statement should express that the Seventh-day Adventist Church will not defile itself by functioning as a shell entity that facilitates the movement of tax-exempt money for the benefit of partisan political interests. And our pastors need to be instructed that partisan political agitation on their part will be met with draconian consequences.

7 Likes

Superb essay.

Authentic Christianity DOES have a political mission. It is to speak truth to power. It is to cooperate with others in assisting all human beings toward their God-given capacity to flourish in creativity, generosity, and the building of loving relationships and pleasing communities. (See the Hebrew prophets, not least the ones Jesus quoted most.)

But all of this would be compromised if big money, or any money linked with a particular party or candidate, began corrupting church witness. We take the Second Coming to mean that no earthly power is perfect power, no worldly cause identical with God’s cause. We are citizens of our respective nations, but our ultimate citizenship is in the Kingdom of God. We thus withhold ultimate loyalty from any partisan, or even any national, mission. (On this point most Adventists, and most Christians in general, failed during the 30s and 40s in Germany.)

The writer points out that partisan money and partisan politics would also divide congregations. You can imagine both Democrats and Republicans in a congregation AGREEING on our obligation to help redeem the poor and oppressed from their disadvantages and suffering. But they could still DISAGREE on how to proceed. So even members substantially aligned with one another could be scandalized by a board decision to throw support behind one party’s candidate instead of another’s.

Trump may not be dumb enough to miss all this himself. The trouble is that he is smart enough to be the Tempter’s avatar. What politician does not LIKE money? What politician does not DISLIKE substantive, non-partisan criticism of his or her vision?

Chuck

3 Likes

There are two diametrically opposed views regarding religious liberty:

(1) Religious liberty means creating laws that protect against religious discrimination and against imposing religious-based morality upon others. This view holds that universal morality–do no harm unto others–can be enforced by a secular government, whereas morality based on a religious “authority” (Bible, Quran, Book of Mormon, whatever) must not be enforced by law.

(2) Religious liberty means laws should not impede the rights of believers to discriminate and to impose religious-based morality upon others. This view holds that government should enforce Biblical or other sacred text norms as they interpret them, including opposition to abortion and gay marriage, but halting, for SDAs, at Sunday worship.

To me, it could not be more clear that Ellen White, who wrote copiously about freedom of conscience, promoted view #1. Yet many in our Church have sided with the large bloc of fundamentalists who militantly defend view #2. These individuals have not come out in force here yet, but have done so on other conservative blogs. I question whether they are open-minded enough to comprehend how far they have drifted. They certainly won’t accept the basic premises put forth in this excellent article.

I often wonder whether Ellen White’s remarks about our Church looking increasingly indistinguishable from the world was in reference to our growing alignment with fundamentalist America. It would help if the GC would be more clear about what our position should be on matters of religious liberty.

3 Likes

An interesting dilemma, On aspct of Adventism wants to hasten the Lord’s return another want to prevent anything that precedes. Of course the Johnson Ammendment should be upheld For the reasons stated. But it reads as if the church doesn’t know if it should fish or just cut bait. TZ

1 Like