Things were so much simpler, back in 1954.
All it took to put the muzzle on America’s churches, as ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb told a Congressional committee this week, was “one last-minute amendment, one voice vote, and one stroke of a pen.” With that legislative one-two-three, the Johnson Amendment quietly closed a door on free speech that had been open for more than 200 years.
Future U.S. President Lyndon Johnson was only minority leader of the U.S. Senate back then, chafing at efforts by a couple of secular non-profit organizations to boot him out during that year’s election in favor of his opponent. Resourceful politician that he was, Johnson used his already considerable legislative influence to quietly attach an amendment to a tax bill. Just like that, it was illegal for non-profit organizations to speak out with regard to candidates.
Trouble was … it was illegal for churches, too.
For nearly 75 years, the IRS has been using churches’ tax-exempt status to hold pastors hostage – enabling government officials to exert a powerful, invasive, and unconstitutional power over what preachers can say about politics – and politicians – in light of what the Bible teaches.
And while President Trump’s new executive order on religious liberty highlights the need to protect free speech rights for churches and pastors, legislative action is still needed to fix this bad law.
Constitutional Issues with the Johnson Amendment
Essentially, the Johnson Amendment gives government officials a license to censor religious speech – if the Bible takes a dim view of the state’s social, political, or moral agenda, officials can always invoke the Johnson Amendment to ensure that part of the Bible isn’t preached.
Two problems with that.
One: it’s illegal. In fact, it’s a flagrant violation of First Amendment protections for religious freedom – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”
The only way the government can enforce compliance with the Johnson Amendment is by authorizing one of its agencies – in this case, the Internal Revenue Service – to monitor and censor pastors’ sermons and church communications. So much for “free exercise of religion.”
Two: the First Amendment also says: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Censorship = abridging, even if the speech comes from a pulpit. So, in effect, the Johnson Amendment hits the Constitution with a double whammy: encouraging government officials to prohibit the free exercise of religion by abridging freedom of speech.
Fixing the Johnson Amendment
Congress is now working on a remedy to solve these problems; it’s called the Free Speech Fairness Act. While it doesn’t completely repeal the Johnson Amendment, it revises it enough to allow leaders of churches and other non-profits to speak freely on any subject reasonably within their group’s mission and “customary activities.” The revisions create a relief valve for free speech, and get the IRS out of the business of being sermon police.
Other things, though, are harder to fix.
For beneath the legal wrangling and the constitutional questions, the Johnson Amendment suggests a subtler, perhaps more dangerous message.
A number of pastors and lay leaders have been oddly reluctant to push for repeal of the amendment. Perhaps, deep down, too many of us really believe that God’s truth should be restricted to certain quiet, comfortable corners of our lives. That His Word is fine for a Sunday school class, or for saying grace ‘round the breakfast table … but has no place in those elite areas of my thinking that I prefer to keep to myself.
Where, in other words, does God come off prying into all areas of my life? Suggesting – through His Word – that I should more closely consider the movies I watch … how I act on a date … how I run my business … how I cast my ballot … my policies and speeches as a public official?
That’s not a Father’s loving direction, many believe, but an inappropriate intrusion … a violation of, rather than a forming of, conscience. And if the government is willing to intervene to silence God’s voice in my off-limits inner sanctums, well – more power to the powers that be.
For these, the Johnson Amendment is just a formal, government-stamped way of keeping the Bible closed on some issues … intimidating preachers into silence … and telling God Himself to “shut up.”
For three-quarters of a century, Christians have blandly (some, even cheerfully) – acquiesced in that sacrilege. It’s high time we fix the Johnson Amendment – and repent of our passive support for it, too.