Monday, July 1, 2019

Totally destroy the Johnson Amendment

I can think of no better topic to start a new month—especially one in which we honor and express gratitude for our freedom and independence—than religious liberty.

One of the earliest very positive indicators me about then-candidate Trump was his particular emphasis on crushing the Johnson Amendment.

This is not some random pandering issue for him. If anything, if you listen to his nomination acceptance speech, one could have the impression he was advised against including this issue. From conversations I've had with a few connected people, I know that he talks about this in private, not just publicly.

This nation was founded on free speech. It's among the first freedoms in the First Amendment. For more than a hundred years, pastors were able and willing to speak out on issues, candidates, and whatever else they felt would be honoring to God based on Scripture.

Churches were also tax-exempt because “the power to tax was the power to destroy.” (These days, the thinking is flipped, and the power to tax-exempt is the power to control, because a tax-exemption is considered a tax expenditure and tantamount to a subsidy.)

Fast-forward to 1954. Lyndon Johnson was a senator and wanted to shut-up a couple anti-war groups, so he inserts an amendment into a bill that became law without any debate. Covered under this anti-free speech provision was any non-profit organization, including churches.

Supposedly the First Amendment no longer applies to churches or anyone working in a non-profit, and if they violate this, they are threatened with the revoking of their tax-exempt status. In the financially fragile non-profit sector, that's usually more than enough motivation for self-policing on this matter.

President Trump has seen how this has weakened and neutered the effectiveness of the Church today, and he wanted to fix this. Even in the absence of a popular outcry, he was willing to lead on this issue. While he has not been able to have the statute repealed outright, he has taken executive action to mitigate the effects of this policy.

As far has his purposes are concerned, as long as he's President the Johnson Amendment is no longer a threat. He uses language as if it was fully repealed, and that's where he gives room for the Washington Post to claim he is “shifting” his claims about the policy. The bottom line for him is he wants it gone as much as possible. It's not right, and more people should be speaking up on his behalf on this issue.

There are some who criticize his action and policy stance claiming we should not have politics “pollute the Gospel” by bringing politics into the pulpit. For them, I have two questions: (1) Does the Gospel apply to all sin? (2) Is it possible to sin in politics and use of power? If yes to both, then there is no such thing as politics polluting the Gospel. The Gospel applies to all sin everywhere. A Gospel that has no relevance to politics, policy, lawmaking, and governing is an impotent Gospel.

In his address to the Faith and Freedom Coalition last week, President Trump cited his action on the Johnson Amendment. “We’re allowed to talk without having to lose your tax exemption, your tax status, and being punished for speaking. And the people that we most want to hear, our great clergy, is now able to speak without fear of retribution.”

President Trump went on to joke, “They can speak — unless they speak against me, in which case, we’ll bring it back. (Laughter.) We’ll bring back that Johnson Amendment so fast, Shaun.” He went on to predict an out-of-context reaction in the media, “I’m only kidding. I’m only kidding. They’re going to take it seriously.  You know, they’re going to go out — ‘We have breaking news.’ (Laughter.)  They’re going to say, ‘See, I told you he wants to be a dictator. I told you that.’ (Laughter.)”

Here's the thing: In this case, they may not because they like the Johnson Amendment. They like it that the people who have dedicated their lives and professions to reading, studying, and teaching God's Word are not allowed to speak publicly on public issues. To them, that's not being a dictator; they still think of that as the status quo where we are now, as if nothing has changed. What is truly more dictator-like is the status quo. It is evil to silence important wisdom that should be allowed under free speech, and this silencing is enabling evil to proliferate in this land.

It's as if those who fear repeal of this policy think that there would be far-right presidential endorsements everywhere, nothing but partisanship, and a complete breakdown of the entire non-profit sector that works to do good in this country. The fundamental mistake they're making is there is nothing about a repeal of a prohibition against something that turns it into a requirement for action. This isn't saying everyone has to get political. This is saying, if you think politics is relevant to your mission, that's your choice to make without fear of threats and intimidation.

I'm thankful for what President Trump has done so far, and for his commitment on this issue. There is still work Congress and the President can do to crush this unconstitutional encroachment on religious liberty. This policy is still in the statute and needs to be fully repealed so that it cannot be easily reinstated by an administration not friendly to religious liberty.

Possibilities for taking action is not limited to those in public office. The Alliance Defending Freedom has a standing offer to defend anyone willing to flout this unconstitutional policy and defend them all the way to the Supreme Court at no cost. Who will be the next brave man of God to take them up on this offer?

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