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Would the Johnson Amendment Have Stopped the War for Independence and Abolitionist Movement?

Had the Johnson Amendment been in effect prior to 1954, the American War for Independence and the abolitionist movement may have never happened.

The Johnson Amendment to the federal tax code prohibits nonprofit, tax-exempt entities from participating in, or intervening in, “any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.” This prohibition includes “the publishing or distributing of statements” on behalf of candidates, legislation, or political parties.

The amendment was originally proposed by Texas Senator (and future President) Lyndon B. Johnson to silence and retaliate against the nonprofit political organizations that had been created to support his primary opponent. It was passed in 1954 by a unanimous voice vote without debate.

Although Congress never intended to include churches in the prohibition, “the I.R.S. has steadfastly maintained that any speech by churches that the IRS could construe as supporting or opposing candidates for government office, including sermons from the pulpit, can result in loss of tax exemption,” according to Alliance Defending Freedom.

The Johnson Amendment has had a chilling effect on American churches. Radical atheist organizations like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State have mounted public relations campaigns to intimidate churches and pastors. Not only do they spread misinformation about what churches and pastors can/cannot do regarding political involvement, but they have also reported to the IRS those churches who refused to remain silent about issues relating to government.

However, American pulpits have not always been censored by the federal government. Before the enactment of the Johnson Amendment, churches and pastors used their moral authority to speak prophetically to members and the culture about political issues.

From colonial times until the twentieth century, American churches often used their trusted social position to proclaim the Bible’s truth about issues being debated in public.

For example, pastors would frequently endorse or oppose specific candidates for public office, and they shared with their congregations whether a piece of legislation or a candidate’s positions were compatible with biblical principles. Pastors also commonly preached “Election Sermons,” which were given in the audience of public officials to exhort them to govern according to God’s truth and design for society.

Recognizing that a faithful exposition of God’s Word demanded that they preach about political issues, churches and pastors spoke into the civil arena and helped shape the American political debate for centuries. Perhaps this is no more apparent than the indispensable role churches played in the War for Independence, the abolition movement, and early civil rights movements.

John Adams, himself a central figure in the independence movement and the early republic, pointed to the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Mayhew as having had a “great influence in the commencement” of the American War for Independence. Like many of his contemporaries, Mayhew preached and published sermons that seemed to “revive… animosity against tyranny in church and state.”

It was in church that early Americans learned of their inalienable rights and the proper jurisdiction and role of civil government. According to Adams, the Spirit of 1776 ripened, in part, because “the pulpits thundered!”

Leading up to the Civil War, churches also played a key role in the movement to abolish slavery. Quakers, Wesleyans, American Baptists, Congregationalists, and some Methodists stridently opposed the peculiar institution and mobilized political and social efforts against it, with their churches serving as the center of the action. Churches comprised many of the stops along the “Underground Railroad,” offering their sanctuaries as hiding places for those escaping slavery.

It is no wonder that the abolition of slavery came on the heels of the Second Great Awakening, an Evangelical religious revival during the early nineteenth century that stressed the importance of a personal relationship with Christ and propelled efforts to reform society according to biblical precepts.

Imagine if the Johnson Amendment had been around during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Would American churches have assumed their role as agents of social change in the movements for independence, abolition, and civil rights if their free speech had been muzzled by the federal government?

Churches and pastors have a biblical obligation to share biblical positions on political issues with their members and their communities. Throughout this nation’s history, churches have acted as champions of justice.

Although President Trump campaigned on “totally destroying” the Johnson Amendment, his religious liberty executive order last month failed to make any substantive changes to IRS policy. The ACLU called the executive order a “faux sop to religious conservatives” and an “elaborate photo-op” that “does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process.”

It is time to stop censoring the constitutionally protected religious speech of American pulpits. Pastors who preach and uphold the entirety of the Bible should no longer have to fear the IRS. Congress should not wait any longer to begin the process of repealing the Johnson Amendment.


Blaine Conzatti is a columnist and research fellow at the Family Policy Institute of Washington. He can be reached at Blaine@FPIW.org.


Religious Liberty Executive Order Good First Step

Affirming that our liberties are a gift of God that no government can rightfully take away, President Donald Trump today signed the long-awaited executive order on religious liberty.

The executive order has two main components. First, it directs government officials to consider changing regulations to allow conscience-based objections to the contraceptive mandate, which requires insurance plans to cover contraceptives and abortifacients.

Second, it instructs federal agencies to avoid penalizing tax-exempt organizations, including churches, that “speak about moral or political issues from a religious perspective.”

Speaking to the press in the White House Rose Garden before signing the executive order, the president reiterated his belief that “for too long, the federal government has used the power of the state as a weapon against people of faith, bullying and even punishing Americans for following their religious beliefs.”

While there is hope that today’s executive order will be a first step to restoring religious liberty, there remain grave threats to the fundamental freedom to live according to the dictates of one’s faith and conscience.

Joseph Backholm, President of FPIW, says he is “cautiously optimistic” about the executive order, calling it “a step in the right direction.”

Backholm hopes the executive order will be used by federal agencies to “develop comprehensive rules protecting religious liberties.”

Some religious liberty advocates, including the Heritage Foundation’s Ryan T. Anderson, expressed their concern that the executive order fails to make substantive reforms protecting religious liberty. In a press release today, Alliance Defending Freedom President Michael Ferris said the executive order amounts to “vague instructions to federal agencies [that] simply leaves them wiggle room to ignore [the] gesture.”

A draft of the executive order released in February included far greater protections for religious liberty. That draft protected the rights of those—including federal employees, religious organizations, and some businesses—who believe in traditional marriage and the traditional conception of two genders, male and female. These protections were not included in the executive order signed today.

“Our founding fathers believed that religious liberty was so fundamental that they enshrined it in the very first amendment of our great and beloved constitution,” President Trump said in the Rose Garden press conference today. “No American should be forced to choose between the dictates of the federal government and the tenets of their faith.”

On that, Mr. President, we wholeheartedly agree.

FPIW Joins Effort to Encourage Trump to Protect Religious Freedom

FPIW has joined with dozens of pro-family organizations asking President Trump “to swiftly sign a broad religious freedom Executive Order protecting the right of all Americans to freely live out their faith.”

In a letter to President Trump, Vice President Pence, Speaker Ryan, and Majority Leader McConnell, the organizations call on the new presidential administration and Congress to reverse President Obama’s attacks on religious freedom and enact strong protections for the sacred right.

The letter evokes many high profile religious liberty cases of the last eight years, including Hobby Lobby, Little Sisters of the Poor, Illinois Catholic Charities, and Sweet Cakes by Melissa:

“Under his ‘hallmark achievement’ (Obamacare) alone, the Obama Administration attempted to: force Christian family-owned businesses like Hobby Lobby to pay for drugs and devices that can cause early abortions, force Christian charities like the Little Sisters of the Poor to include those same drugs in their healthcare plans, and contravene longstanding federal policy protecting Americans from being forced to fund abortions against their religious beliefs. …

“Families in our states have felt the impact of the disregard and disdain for religious freedom from the federal level. Frequently, state non-discrimination laws have been used as a weapon to punish people of faith and prevent them from earning a living— unless they comport their businesses in the image of the government’s viewpoints. The Kleins in Oregon are a tragic example—Melissa Klein lost her bakery business and was forced to pay a fine of over $100,000 simply because as a family-owned business operated in accordance with the Kleins’ deeply held beliefs, they disagreed with using Melissa’s cake-decorating talents to participate in a same-sex wedding. Illinois Catholic Charities—an organization that partnered with government to serve the state’s poor and neglected children for over 40 years—was forced to shut down rather than comply with the government’s rule requiring them to abandon the core convictions that motivated their charity in the first place.”

It also details the Obama Administration’s attempts to limit religious liberty to a more restricted “freedom to worship”:

“The Administration unsuccessfully argued that the First Amendment does not exempt churches from employment discrimination laws, even when hiring their own pastors and teachers. Ironically, in the name of ‘preventing discrimination,’ President Obama issued an Executive Order in 2014 that discriminates against faith-based entities by preventing them from contracting with their own government unless they forfeit their religious beliefs about human sex and sexuality. One final example is the Obama Administration’s regular use of the term ‘freedom of worship’ instead of ‘freedom of religion’—implying a deep misunderstanding about the depth of First Amendment protections. We are guaranteed the right to freely live out our faith in all aspects of life—not just the freedom to worship our God within the four walls of our church or home.”

The letter concludes by asking President Trump to sign an executive order protecting religious liberty, much like the proposed executive order that was leaked earlier this month:

“A broad religious freedom Executive Order affirming that persons and organizations do not forfeit their religious freedom when providing social services, education, or healthcare; earning a living, seeking a job, or employing others; receiving government grants or contracts; or otherwise participating in the marketplace, the public square, or interfacing with local, state, or federal governments is an excellent and vital first step to truly make religious freedom great again. Congress should follow your lead to pass strong religious freedom protections into law.”

Click here to read the letter in its entirety.

Write to President Trump and ask him to sign the executive order: https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact#page.