The GOP’s effort to let churches endorse candidates is deeply unpopular

Democrats, Republicans, and even evangelical Christians don't like this idea.

House Republicans wait to start a news conference following a vote on tax reform on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. . (CREDIT: AP/Susan Walsh)
House Republicans wait to start a news conference following a vote on tax reform on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. . (CREDIT: AP/Susan Walsh)

For years, a group of largely evangelical Christian conservatives have pushed the White House and Congress to abolish the so-called Johnson Amendment, a provision of the IRS tax code created in 1954 that bars non-profits and churches from endorsing political candidates. They now stand on the cusp of at least partly achieving their goal: a GOP-led Congress has quietly included a provision in their embattled tax bills that would chip away at restrictions prohibiting houses of worship from participating in electoral campaigns.

But even as supporters argue that removing the Johnson Amendment is meant to protect “religious liberty,” new survey results indicate the proposal is deeply unpopular with Democrats, Republicans, and even evangelical Christians.

According to a poll from the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland (UMD), an overwhelming majority of Americans—79 percent—oppose allowing churches and other non-profit organizations to endorse political candidates and support their campaigns financially or otherwise. Resistance to the idea is bipartisan: 88 percent of Democrats, 78 percent on independents, and 71 percent of Republicans all disapproved of the idea, and 55 percent said it is ‘very important’ to keep current law intact.

“The idea of churches and universities becoming channels for partisan political activity makes this proposal a non-starter with Republican and Democratic voters alike.”

“The idea of churches and universities becoming channels for partisan political activity makes this proposal a non-starter with Republican and Democratic voters alike,” Steven Kull, director of Program for Public Consultation, said in a press release.

UMD researchers said in the same press release that even when they focused on “very Republican” and “very Democratic” districts, the results were the same: 79 percent opposed repealing the Johnson Amendment.

And while the loudest voices calling for the abolishment of the Johnson Amendment are a bevy of evangelical Christian leaders (including Trump’s own lawyer), the poll found a majority of evangelicals (56 percent) opposed allowing churches to endorse candidates. Only evangelical Republicans backed the effort as a group, and then just barely (52 percent).

The survey, conducted online among registered voters from September 7 to October 3 of this year with a 2 percent margin of error, echoes a similar 2016 poll from PRRI. In that poll, PRRI also found that most Americans (71 percent) oppose further politicizing churches by allowing them to endorse candidates, as did majorities of every major religious group—including white evangelical Protestants.

Meanwhile, nearly 100 religious groups signed an open letter to Congress in April asking lawmakers to avoid politicizing churches, and more than 4,000 faith leaders have added their names to a petition specifically opposing the repeal of the Johnson Amendment.

Yet leaders of the Religious Right have championed abolishing the Johnson Amendment all the same. Many maintain their reasons are rooted in concerns about religious liberty and free speech, despite the fact that the provision is rarely enforced by the IRS—even as thousands of pastors record sermons endorsing candidates and mail them to the federal government each year.

Some Republicans, however, have voiced a different reason for the backing the repeal. Speaking during a panel discussion at the Values Voters Summit in October, Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC) suggested doing away with the provision would aid right-wing voices.

“The voices on the left were never shackled. Now it’s time to unshackle the voices on the right,” Walker said.

Indeed, abolishing the Johnson Amendment could have a significant impact on U.S. elections. The language in the current House tax reform bill, which the New York Times reports originated with the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, would allow churches and other faith communities to endorse candidates if done as part of the “ordinary course of the organization’s regular and customary activities.” While not a full repeal of the amendment, it would potentially allow megachurch pastors with large congregations an outside influence on elections if they begin preaching endorsements from the pulpit.

Tax experts have also expressed concerns that rolling back such restrictions could turn churches into an unusual form of SuperPAC. Unlike donations to political campaigns, donations to a church are tax-deductible—increasing the incentive for politicians to push faith communities to work on their behalf.