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GOP Tax Bill Would Allow Religious Nonprofits to Endorse Candidates

A few weeks ago I wrote at about an obscure free speech matter. It concerns something called the Johnson Amendment. See, I said it was obscure.

By Terry Eastland  

In case you haven’t finished reading the 429-page House Republicans tax bill, go to pages 427 and 428 to see what it proposes to do regarding the Johnson Amendment. Passed in 1954 and named for its chief sponsor, Senator Lyndon Johnson, the amendment prohibits politicking by tax-exempt nonprofits, including churches and other religious institutions. Under the Republicans’ proposal, pastors and other religious leaders would be free to endorse candidates from the pulpit.

First Amendment scholar Charles Haynes told the Washington Post that “it’s really a carve-out to make sure, in the views of those who support it, that the pulpit is a free-speech zone.” That’s a fair description of what the Republicans are proposing: A carve-out from existing law that effectively creates a free-speech zone for religious speech in churches and other religious entities.

Though the Johnson Amendment has rarely been enforced against churches or other religious institutions, evangelical pastors and activists say it has made preachers reluctant to endorse candidates for office. As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump agreed with them, contending that the relative absence of political speech by religious figures has rendered “Christianity in America ... weaker, weaker, weaker.” Trump vowed to make Christianity stronger by repealing the amendment. It would be, he said, forever modest in his rhetoric, his “greatest contribution to Christianity.” Not surprisingly, the Republican platform—for the first time—called for the amendment’s repeal.

Early this year Trump said that he wanted to “totally destroy” the amendment. That would mean a total repeal But the House proposal doesn’t go that far, and the Senate did not act on the matter in its tax bill.

Getting majorities to support legislation that would make the pulpit a free speech zone has not proved as easy as one might think. Notably, evangelicals, more than 80 percent of whom voted for Trump, seem to like him more than they do his call for repealing the Johnson Amendment. Consider that earlier this year 89 percent of evangelical pastors told the National Association of Evangelicals, the evangelical lobby in Washington, D.C., that they don’t think clergy should endorse politicians from the pulpit. And 79 percent of churchgoers told Lifeway in Nashville that they didn’t want their pastor endorsing a candidate in a sermon.

Trump’s election has made possible congressional reconsideration of the Johnson Amendment. Keep up with the conference on the tax bill to see whether Congress indeed designates, as odd as it may seem, pulpits as free-speech zones.