Donald Trump | Flicker
Donald Trump | Flicker

Donald Trump’s vocal oppo­sition of the Johnson Amendment is a key factor of many Evan­gel­icals’ seem­ingly con­fusing support of him.   

The main­stream media has largely ignored Trump’s stance on the issue and instead spent time on his more con­tro­versial stances with pro­tec­tionist trade, immi­gration, and foreign policy. But his stance hasn’t gone unno­ticed Evan­gelical circles, and the Repub­lican Pres­i­dential nominee’s oppo­sition to the Johnson Amendment gar­nered him a lot of support.

For the last 62 years the Johnson Amendment to the tax code has sought to muzzle churches and other reli­gious orga­ni­za­tions from making political speech.

Many churches and Christian orga­ni­za­tions are growing tired of restric­tions brought about by the Johnson Amendment, and oppo­sition to it has been growing in recent years. So when Trump began voicing his oppo­sition to the amendment, many Evan­gel­icals lis­tened.

At the Repub­lican National Con­vention in July, Trump promised to repeal the lan­guage which he said “threatens reli­gious insti­tu­tions.” At the Value Voters Summit in Sep­tember he promised to “get rid of it so fast.”

Named after Lyndon B. Johnson, who pro­posed it as a Senator in 1954, the Johnson Amendment pro­hibits certain tax-exempt orga­ni­za­tions, including churches, from endorsing political can­di­dates. Con­gress strengthened the political gag-order in 1987 by further spec­i­fying that these orga­ni­za­tions couldn’t oppose a spe­cific political can­didate either.

The Johnson Amendment doesn’t stop pastors from preaching for or against political issues. According to an August Pew Research Poll, among adults who have attended reli­gious ser­vices in the months before the poll, 40 percent heard clergy address reli­gious liberty and 39 percent heard clergy discuss homo­sex­u­ality.

Further, according to the poll, 14 percent of respon­dents said they have heard a clergy member speak for or against a pres­i­dential can­didate, pos­sibly vio­lating the Johnson Amendment.

Some pastors and leaders of Christian orga­ni­za­tions sidestep the Johnson Amendment by saying they speak for them­selves when they make political state­ments.

This line became espe­cially blurry this election cycle when tel­e­van­gelist Mark Burns and Liberty Uni­versity pres­ident Jerry Falwell Jr. openly cam­paigning for, and some­times with, Trump.

Sup­porters of the Johnson Amendment argue that churches shouldn’t have tax-exempt status and be able par­tic­ipate in overtly political speech. By allowing the tax-exempt churches to engage in cam­paign pol­itics, some argue, the gov­ernment would essen­tially be sub­si­dising their cam­paign activ­ities.  

But this argument falls flat because many tax-exempt orga­ni­za­tions, such as labor unions, may cam­paign as long as they file the proper forms allowing their political expen­di­tures to be taxed.

It doesn’t make sense that under the current tax code, labor unions should have more freedom to discuss pol­itics than churches, which guide the spir­itual lives of con­gre­gants.

Pastors should be free to speak frankly with con­gre­gants about current political matters. Given this freedom, it would be com­pletely acceptable for churches to pay taxes on any actual expen­di­tures they end up making to advance a political end.

Pastors have stood up to the Johnson Amendment even before Trump took up the issue. In 2008, a number of Protestant churches began par­tic­i­pating in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, a day started by the Alliance Defending Freedom, where pastors explicitly preach against the amendment.

This session of Con­gress, two Repub­lican Rep­re­sen­ta­tives have also chal­lenged the Johnson Amendment.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Steve Scalise, R‑La., and Jody Hice, R‑Ga., intro­duced the Free Speech Fairness Act, which would restrict the Johnson Amendment from being enforced against churches and other non-profit orga­ni­za­tions. The bill would ensure that political speech made by pastors no longer threatens a church’s tax exempt status and would free more pastors to be vocal about pol­itics.

While Trump’s accom­mo­da­tions for the LGBT com­munity and his flip-flopping on abortion may seem incon­sistent to Evan­gel­icals, his views on reli­gious liberty, and espe­cially the Johnson Amendment have been very steady.

“I think maybe that will be my greatest con­tri­bution to Chris­tianity — and other reli­gions — is to allow you, when you talk reli­gious liberty, to go and speak openly, and if you like somebody or want somebody to rep­resent you, you should have the right to do it,” Trump said at a June 21 speech.

And on that point, Trump is com­pletely right.

Mr. Carter is a senior studying pol­itics and jour­nalism.