For several years now, a small cadre of conservatives have pushed to eliminate the so-called Johnson Amendment, the part of the IRS tax code that prohibits churches and other tax-exempt nonprofits from endorsing candidates. Supporters of its repeal often justify their position by claiming the issue is about “religious liberty,” arguing the law inhibits the freedom of faith leaders.
President Donald Trump echoed this sentiment on Friday while speaking to the Values Voters Summit in Washington, D.C. He pointed to an executive order he signed earlier this year that chapped away at the Johnson Amendment under the banner of “religious liberty.”
“The executive order followed through on one of my most important campaign promises…to prevent the horrendous Johnson amendment from interfering with your First Amendment rights,” Trump said. “We will not allow government workers to censor sermons or target our pastors or our ministers, our rabbis. These are the people we want to hear from, and they are not going to be silenced any longer.”
But minutes before Trump’s speech, a Republican lawmaker at the same conference acknowledged an ulterior motive other than “religious liberty” for repealing the law: raw political gain.
While speaking on a panel at the summit, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) was asked to discuss a small provision quietly added to the House budget proposal that would chip away at the Johnson Amendment, as well as a bill he cosponsored that would repeal the law. Johnson responded by rattling off a traditional conservative understanding of the tax provision, insisting lawmakers should abolish it to “unshackle” the voice of churches.
But as he finished, another panelist—fellow Congressman Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC)—interjected with a telling quip.
“The voices on the left were never shackled. Now it’s time to unshackle the voices on the right,” Walker said.
The line won over the crowd, which responded with applause. But by conflating churches with the “right,” Walker effectively undermined the argument that efforts to remove the law are singularly concerned about issues of religious expression—or even free speech. Instead, the lawmaker suggested changing the law would benefit one group in particular: conservatives.
Experts agree that changing the tax provision—which is rarely enforced as it is—would almost certainly have a profound impact on American politics. If churches are allowed to endorse candidates without repercussions, then some larger churches may end up operating as ready-made organizing forces for candidates. What’s more, churchgoers might choose to make tax-deductible donations to a church that backs their favorite candidate rather than the campaign itself (which is taxed). Houses of worship could transform into a new variety of SuperPAC, with legal and electoral implications that are not totally understood.
Yet such a shift may also subject religious communities to undue political pressure, which may explain why the idea is wildly unpopular among people of faith. According to a 2016 PRRI poll, majorities of every single major American faith group oppose allowing churches to openly back politicians while maintaining their tax-exempt status — including white evangelical Protestants, a group whose leaders are often the loudest advocates for the change. Meanwhile, representatives from nearly 100 religious groups—including entire denominations—signed onto a letter in April imploring lawmakers to avoid politicizing churches.
It’s also not entirely clear that doing away with the Johnson Amendment would singularly benefit conservatives. Leaders of the Religious Left have also become increasingly vocal under Trump, and thousands of progressive clergy rallied in Washington, D.C. in August to decry racism and the president’s agenda. The Democratic Party has also embraced more overtly spiritual and moral messages of late, with some commentators suggesting the 2016 Democratic National Convention was more religious than the Republican National Convention.