The American political landscape has changed rapidly over the last several years. More than anything, the course of history was irrevocably altered with the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision of 2010, which effectively gave corporations and unions the same rights as individuals. The decision also chose to interpret spending money as a form of freedom of speech. As a result, it is easier than ever for dark money to make its way into Super PACs that are bought and paid for by various special interest groups. Now, these same groups are trying to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which keeps religious money out of politics. End Citizens United, which was established to overturn the 2010 decision, is now focusing on saving this crucial law.
In a recent press release, Tiffany Muller, the president of End Citizens United, is quoted as stating, “The House Republican’s tax plan includes the terrible decision to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which can turn churches into tools for secret campaign spending.” This is the simplest explanation of what could turn out to be a true catastrophe for American democracy. The Johnson Act, which was put into law in 1954, wasn’t controversial at all at the time. In fact, it was introduced by a Democrat–Lyndon B. Johnson–and signed into law by a Republican–Dwight Eisenhower.
Johnson, who would later of course go on to become president, was inspired to introduce the law after being targeted by tax-exempt non-profit organizations during his Senate campaigns. These groups were able to use tax-free money to smear Johnson’s name, accusing him of being a communist. Essentially, the Johnson Amendment forbids tax-exempt charitable organizations, including churches, from directly or indirectly participating in political campaigning to support or oppose a candidate for office. Although Republicans aren’t seeking to repeal the law entirely, they want to gut it so that it gives preferential treatment to religious organizations while still requiring other organizations to comply.
Given the general lack of awareness about the potential repeal of the Johnson Amendment, it’s interesting to note that this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Although the law wasn’t controversial when it was enacted during the 1950s, it drew plenty of ire as time went by. Religious organizations like churches, in particular, took exception to being told that they had to stay out of politics. The argument was that pastors should be able to engage in free speech–but expressing your beliefs and taking donations from your congregation in support of a political cause or candidate are two very different things.
Through the years, certain churches and other groups have deliberately flouted the terms of the Johnson Amendment, and some have been penalized by the IRS. Most famously, in 1992, a church took out a full-page ad in USA Today instructing Christians to vote against Bill Clinton. That church ended up losing its tax-exempt status. There are even organized efforts to flout the Johnson Amendment. Pulpit Freedom Sounding, a movement organized by the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom, encourages churches to disregard and even defy the law.
Those who were paying close attention during the 2016 election cycle perhaps recall that President Trump specifically cited the Johnson Amendment as an example of a law that he would work hard to eliminate. Of course, Trump made many bold promises to supporters during the campaign, and he has failed to make good on virtually any of them a year in. However, in May, Trump signed an executive order instructing the IRS not to enforce the Johnson Amendment. Executive orders, of course, are not law, so it appears that Trump did this more as a way to signal to his supporters that he is doing what he’s been paid to do.
Incredibly, many Americans aren’t even very concerned with the concept of politics in religion–this despite the fact that the country was founded partly on the principle of the separation of church and state. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center in 2017, 66 percent of respondents stated that the idea of politics in religion made them “uncomfortable.” This means, of course, that almost 40 percent are apparently fine with it. When presented with more information about why it’s problematic, however, many would likely change their tune.
Should the Johnson Amendment be repealed or stripped of virtually all of its original meaning, an even bigger flood of dark money would start pouring into Super PACs. This process began, of course, with the 2010 Citizens United decision, which enabled corporations and unions to donate to political campaigns as they were deemed to have the same rights as individuals. In 2015, Americans donated more than $119 billion to churches and other religious organizations. The 2016 election was the most expensive in history, and it cost roughly $6.5 billion. If even a small portion of the nearly $120 billion that’s donated to churches each year makes it to Super PACs–and it will if the Johnson Amendment is repealed–the very wealthy will have an even tighter grip.
While the general public is being distracted by Trump’s outrageous behavior, he and his cohorts are slowly but surely dismantling some of the things that make the United States a free and safe place for all. End Citizens United was mobilized with the 2010 decision, and this latest move has the grassroots organization working even harder than ever. By simply getting as many of the right people into office as possible, End Citizens United hopes to stem the tide of dark money that has consumed American politics.
In the meantime, however, End Citizens United and other groups must continue to monitor the situation. It is important to note that not all religious organizations support the appeal of the Johnson Amendment. End Citizens United counts more than 100 faith-based organizations among its supporters, and it hopes to bring more on board as time passes. Even if the Johnson Amendment survives the tax bill, you can be certain that the Republicans will have it back on the table again quickly–so it’s crucial to keep up the fight.