By Kimberly Winston / Religion News Service
This is an abbreviated version of the article. The full piece is available on the RNS website.
President Trump has signed an executive order gutting enforcement of a law known as the Johnson Amendment. In his remarks before the signing Thursday (May 4), the president said: “Under my administration, free speech does not end at the steps of a cathedral or a synagogue or any other house of worship. … We are giving our churches their voices back.”
What is the Johnson Amendment and why were many religious leaders eager to see it scrapped — while many others wanted it preserved?
What is the Johnson Amendment?
The Johnson Amendment is a 1954 law signed by then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower and named for then-Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was not interested in religious organizations when he proposed — and pushed through in typical Johnson heavy-handed fashion — the amendment, but he was hoping to silence two nonprofit groups campaigning against him as “a closet Communist.”
The Johnson Amendment prohibits registered 501(c)(3) organizations — which include some religious congregations but also other nonprofits — from endorsing political candidates and participating in political campaigns, at the risk of losing their nonprofit status.
Thursday’s executive order doesn’t repeal the Johnson Amendment — which is what candidate Trump promised numerous times and President Trump promised to do as recently as the Feb. 2 National Prayer Breakfast. Only Congress can do that. But it advises the IRS not to enforce it.
But many critics of the Johnson Amendment say the law’s true power is as a deterrent. It works like a gag rule, they say, preventing clergy from exercising their full freedom of expression by tacitly threatening them and their organizations with loss of their tax-exempt status. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a Christian organization that heralded Thursday’s executive order, called the Johnson Amendment “overly broad” and said it had been used to censor speech.
But plenty of other people are unhappy with Trump’s executive order, including many religious leaders and free speech advocates. Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, warns politicking from the pulpit may come at the cost of a church’s “prophetic witness — its ability to speak truth to power and not risk being co-opted by the government.”