Some Dallas-Fort Worth area clergy suggest President Donald Trump’s intention to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment isn’t really necessary.
In front of a crowd of religious leaders at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, Trump reinforced his willingness to act on a campaign promise to his Christian conservative supporters to work to repeal the 1954 amendment that prohibits tax-exempt entities like churches and charitable organizations from participating in political campaigns. The Johnson Amendment specifically restricts ministers from endorsing — or opposing — political candidates from the pulpit.
Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democratic U.S. senator from Texas at the time, introduced the legislation, and it was passed by a Republican Congress and Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It has since served as a major component in the separation of church and state.
The amendment, however, does not restrict clergy from openly discussing political issues and expressing political beliefs with their congregations. Endorsing a candidate, however, would put a church’s tax-exempt status at risk.
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“Moral issues often exist at the junction of religious values and political and social issues. Morality hits us where those intersect,” said Bishop Mike Lowry of the Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church/Fort Worth Episcopal Area. “With that, I hope that the President and the members of Congress would keep the Johnson Amendment. With the amendment, pastors are free to speak from their pulpit on moral issues, but the prohibition against endorsing political candidates is a wise separation of church and state.
“We tread a dangerous line when we allow pulpits to become political platforms.”
Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth offered a similar sentiment.
“Religious liberty should not be defined narrowly as a personal preference for a particular form of worship,” Olson said in a statement. “Religious leaders should guide the formation of the consciences of their congregants according to moral principles of faith and not partisan positions of politics.”
Pastor Tom Plumbley of For Worth’s First Christian Church said he doesn’t believe repealing the Johnson Amendment “would be the end of the world,” but he does see clear benefits to keeping a key piece of the church-state divide in place.
He believes that ministers who actively campaign for a particular candidate threaten to “open the church to being unable to really speak with authenticity about the gospel and the church then becomes just another political shill for a candidate or a set of candidates.”
Ministers could then potentially turn congregations into large-scale donors to a particular candidate.
Plumbley said he has noticed a growing clamor to repeal the amendment only in the past few years as a result of politically right-leaning pastors, and particularly those who preside over mega-churches, who want to endorse politicians and bring politicians into their churches to speak.
Some clergy do make their candidate choices known.
Senior Pastor Robert Jeffress First Baptist Church of Dallas was an outspoken proponent of Trump during the campaign.
“Doesn’t the church lose something when it becomes just another lobbying or campaigning organization?” Plumbley said. “If that’s all it’s doing than it’s no longer a church. The bulk of what it does has to continue to be helping people and being a force for goodness and reconciliation and drawing people together, being a bridge in communities and across the country with all different people.”
Conservatives have contended that the Johnson Amendment violates the protections of free speech under the First Amendment. As part of his outreach to woo evangelicals during the campaign, Trump promised to work to repeal the Johnson Amendment. To do so would take an act of Congress, but with Republicans entrenched in both houses, a repeal could be possible.
At Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast, Trump said, “I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.” He said that it impinges on the American “right to worship according to our own beliefs.” He also said that freedom of religion is “under threat” and that repealing the law will “allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution — I will do that."
Jim Riddlesperger, a professor or political science at TCU, said that repealing the Johnson Amendment can fall into the category of “be careful what you ask for.”
While the current majority party might want to push its values into practice, majority parties often become the minority party in the next political cycle. He said the United States has “always gone to such lengths to separate church and state, to make sure they are in two different baskets” so that the beliefs of one religion do not dictate political decisions.
“That’s the sort of thing the founding fathers wrestled with,” Riddlesperger said. “The founding fathers knew the only way forward in politics is if we didn’t make religion and politics one and the same.”
Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan