Get Thee Behind me… (Mark 8:33)

“Hadst Thou taken the world and Caesar’s purple, Thou wouldst have founded the universal state and have given universal peace. For who can rule men if not he who holds their conscience and their bread in his hands? We have taken the sword of Caesar, and in taking it, of course, have rejected Thee and followed him.”  The Grand Inquisitor, Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

President Trump has dangled the forbidden fruit before the church with his promise to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment that prohibits non-profit organizations, including the church, from taking overtly partisan political action Trump has complained that the effect of the amendment on religious institutions is that “their voice has been taken away.” To many, especially evangelicals and fundamentalists, the prospects of entering the political arena on an equal footing with Political Action Committees seem irresistible.  In fact, it is a siren song.

First, of course, one should understand the legislation, which, I dare say, few have heard of until recently.  Named for then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, it passed both Houses of Congress in 1954 with no debate and no discussion – a rarity even in those days.  It applies to 501(c)3 institutions and churches.  It allows donors to such organizations to deduct contributions from their taxes. Political contributions, on the other hand, are not deductible. Since the institutions covered by the amendment enjoy tax-exempt status, prohibiting them from engaging in partisan politics prevents individual contributors from making tax-exempt political contributions through non-profits. Further, it extends tax-exempt status to churches without requiring them to file the paperwork that 5019(c)3 organizations must submit.

As implied in President Trump’s statement, opposition to the amendment typically argue on first amendment free speech grounds.  Such arguments are specious, however, for at least two reasons. First, under the Johnson Amendment, churches may address political and social issues, take positions on political issues, engage in voter education on such issues, and conduct voter registration drives. The only prohibition pertains to partisan politics. Second, since it does not apply to individual church members, including ministers who may speaks freely as private citizens under the provisions of the law, the argument that it restricts free speech can only be made with respect to institutions.  As such, it would apply only if the problematic trend in the law regarding the grant of “person” status to corporate bodies were extended to churches. Such a doctrine would, of course, potentially have unforeseeable consequences in other areas of the law (discrimination, libel-slander, torts, etc.)

Ironically, both secular and Christian opponents to the Johnson amendment appeal to another element of the First Amendment to the Constitution, specifically the “establishment of religion” clause. Secular opponents argue that the tax-exempt status granted the church under Johnson is tantamount to requiring tax-payers indirectly to subsidize churches. In Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York 397 U.S. 664 (1970), Chief Justice Burger, writing for the majority, concluded that, since Johnson applies to non-profits generally, it does not represent an unconstitutional “establishment of religion.” The same reasoning pertains with regard to the claim that, by restricting churches’ participation in partisan politics, Johnson discriminates against religion.

Legal issues aside, three considerations suggest that churches should regard Johnson as a convenient protection for the church from itself. First the church must remember that, in the wilderness, Jesus resisted the temptation to political power. God calls believers to do good in and for the world; engagement in the political arena is inevitable and even necessary.  Political power, however, brings with it all the dangers associated with impersonal institutions and convenient compromise.

Second, Christianity already presents itself to the world too much as a divided and divisive body.  Should churches fully enter the partisan ring, society will unavoidably identify them to some degree with political parties:  First Baptist Church (Republican), Memorial Baptist Church (Democratic).  Moreover, society will identify churches with the entire agenda of the pertinent political party or candidate. Neither party ‘seeks first the Kingdom of God’; neither deserves such wholehearted endorsement.

Finally, as the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty has warned, “[Repealing Johnson] would usher our partisan divisions into the pews and hart the church’s ability to provide refuge.” The difficulties that arose in the early Corinthian church and its Paul, Apollos, Cephas, and Christ parties should be warning enough.  The Republican party was not crucified for you; you were not baptized in the name of Democrats (cf. 1 Cor 1:12-13).