Churches – Careful What You Wish For

The President has promised to “totally destroy,” as opposed to seeking the removal of or some other non-hysterical term, the Johnson Amendment that prohibits tax-exempt churches from participating in political campaigns. The report appears here: To accomplish this goal, supported apparently by the religious “right,” will require an act of Congress and Trump’s signature. He promises to deliver both.

This scheme has some complex implications, which, as usual, seem not to have been thought through by the President and his henchmen. It will, for one thing, opens church treasuries to uses not contemplated by parishioners when they contributed the money. It will expose the churches to campaign demands to sermonize for the favored candidates and to contribute more, and more. And more. That’s what campaigns do once they know who you are.

This will, I suggest, fundamentally alter the nature of the ministry. It will open the churches to

the full spectrum of political “discourse” as it is now practiced. Inevitably they will become embroiled in the so-called “give and take.” How long before the churches start attacking each other in the political arena? Is this what the churches are for? Is it what their parishioners are seeking from their church? Apparently some are. Just what we need – a theocratic political jousting for advantage.

And, what effect will such an action have on other political engagement bans for tax exempts?  If one rule says tax-exempt churches can engage in partisan campaigns, while getting a pass on federal taxes, it is possible to maintain an engagement limitation on charities generally? I think not. A law favoring religious institutions would, I believe, be a law “respecting religion” which is expressly forbidden by the First Amendment “establishment clause:” “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Will Trump seek to escape this problem by proposing to unhinge the charities as well? Some will argue that this is the next logical step to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United case, which allowed unlimited “independent” spending by corporations in political campaigns. The Court essentially found that “non-persons” have constitutionally-protected speech rights and that spending money is the same as “speaking.” Whether or not there is a logical process here,

it does seem inescapable that if Congress unleashes the churches’ political campaigning maintaining their immunity from federal taxation, it must provide similar rights to other exempt organizations.

Something to think about.


2 thoughts on “Churches – Careful What You Wish For

  1. James B Jalenak

    I suspect the naïve Trump followers will claim that letting the churches engage in politics will clean up the political process. As you point out, the opposite is more likely – instead of the political becoming more holy, the holy will become more political. As Bertrand Russell once said “It seems to be the fate of idealists to obtain what they have struggled for in a form which destroys their ideals.”


    1. shiningseausa Post author

      Quite right, I think. And if I am correct about the resulting need to unleash the charities, what becomes of charitable giving when potential contributors come to understand that their money will be used to support political campaigns. This seems to me to be a self-inflicted wound for all concerned.



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