Trump vows to destroy Johnson Amendment. Will it matter to religious leaders?

Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson, seen here speaking to political and religious leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., created the Johnson Amendment, which restricting religious leaders from making explicit political endorsements [CC0]
Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson, seen here speaking to political and religious leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., created the Johnson Amendment, restricting religious leaders’ ability to explicitly endorse politicians [CC0]
Pres. Donald Trump was quite wide-ranging in his remarks during the National Prayer Breakfast, finding time to not only pray for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings but also to discuss how he’ll “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a long-standing law that prohibits leaders of tax-exempt charitable institutions from endorsing political candidates.

“I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution,” Trump said.

This has been a long-standing promise from Trump, one that even found its way into his speech at the Republican National Convention back in July. The Johnson Amendment, Trump said at the time, “threatens religious institutions with a loss of their tax-exempt status if they openly advocate their political views. Their voice has been taken away.”

The Johnson Amendment was passed in 1954 by both houses of Congress and signed by Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower, meaning that Trump wouldn’t be able to do away with it via executive order and would instead require help from the legislature.

Although the Johnson Amendment is usually described in terms of religious groups–those “representatives of faith” that Trump mentions–it actually affects all organizations that claim tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. tax code, meaning any charity at all. In fact, the story goes that Johnson designed the legislation after a conservative nonprofit group, which was funded by a wealthy Texas oilman, gave money to Johnson’s Senate opponent. No church was involved.

It’s also interesting to remember that, while the GOP currently relies on church groups for much of its voting base, the Civil Rights movement of the fifties and sixties was powered largely by Democrat-leaning churches, meaning the issue was less partisan when the Johnson Amendment first passed Congress.

There is also some debate about how meaningful the Johnson Amendment actually is. Rev. Jerry Falwell, for instance, campaigned for George W. Bush in 2000. This past election, we covered how both Satmars endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.

According to The Atlantic, there are simply not many resources at the IRS to enforce the Johnson Amendment. One of the last prominent cases was all the way back in 1995, when Branch Ministries had its tax-exempt status revoked for taking out a full-page ad in USA Today telling Christians not to vote for Bill Clinton.

02/02/2017 11:57 AM by David Kinzer

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