"Destroying" the Johnson Amendment is a poor idea, Mr. President

The National Prayer Breakfast appearance by the President drew the usual rounds of pans and praise this week. (Just as a side note, it’s not really the best forum for stand up comedy and Schwarzenegger jokes.) One item which cropped up and drew a lot of media fire was President Trump’s renewed pledge to do away with the Johnson Amendment. As you will recall, that’s the 1954 law which restricts churches and other tax exempt, non-profit organizations from certain political activities. (NPR actually has a pretty good rundown of it here.) Most specifically in this case – and what most of the debate centers on – is the restriction on preachers who wish to tell their flocks who to vote for from the pulpit. Doing so theoretically places their tax exempt status in jeopardy. That’s the part that the President seems to want to see discarded. (WaPo)

In his address at the National Prayer Breakfast this morning, President Trump made one clear policy declaration: “I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.”

What is that? Is it in Trump’s power to destroy it? And who would want him to do that?

This is one of those areas where I once again fall outside much of the conservative mainstream and my inner libertarian hackles are raised. The Johnson Amendment is a relatively toothless artifact of an earlier era and removing it would have almost zero real world impact for the most part, but it at least represents some lip service to a worthwhile principle in government.

The amendment itself is really not the issue here. It’s almost entirely symbolic in terms of its effect on the day to day life of Americans. As a previous report indicated, since 2008 (when churches began seriously challenging the law) there has been only one example of a church being investigated on such charges and none have been punished. It’s extremely difficult to enforce and doing so would be met with huge resistance in some quarters. (No politician or law enforcement officer wants to be enshrined in the front page photo of a preacher being hauled off to jail.)

So why support the amendment at all? Because we leave decisions about voting to the individual in the United States and, as with many other social and professional interactions, we protect the individual from undue influence by those who hold power over them. I wrote about this exact subject last summer when Trump was first talking about it. Here’s the key portion of the argument.

Preaching politics from the pulpit and using that platform to encourage the election of any candidate from either party is simply wrong. We give churches tax exempt status for a variety of reasons, but one of them is that they are outside of the political and governmental body of the nation. Further, a preacher telling you to vote for Candidate A over Candidate B isn’t just appealing to your intelligence and general sensibilities. They are speaking with the authority of the Almighty and providing you with guidance as to the maintenance of your immortal soul. This provides them with a position of vastly undue influence over your choices. It’s a parallel to the reason we don’t allow doctors to engage in sexual relations with their patients… they simply hold too much influence over them from positions of assumed trust.

No matter how well intentioned, Freedom of Religion also means freedom from religion for those who choose another path. And even for the faithful, their vote should not be decided while someone holds the threat of eternal damnation over their heads if they make the “wrong” choice. As I said last year, there is a parallel here to the fact that we don’t allow teachers to engage in sexual relations with their adult students, bosses with employees nor doctors with their patients. These are people who simply hold too much power over the subject and they can not and should not be allowed to wield that power over the electoral process.

The final note which conservatives in particular should be concerned with is the fact that repealing this law may prove to be a Pandora’s Box of sorts. While you may be unleashing the power of the pulpit in some conservative circles, Democrats already use these same dubious practices to greater effect. As NPR points out in the article linked above, a 2016 study showed that 28 percent of black Protestants reported hearing their preachers encouraging them to vote for Hillary Clinton while only 4 percent of white evangelicals heard their spiritual leaders pushing one candidate or the other. And that’s with the supposed restrictions in place. Removing even the lip service of tamping this pattern down would only expand the numbers on both sides. Even if you’re only looking at this from a perspective of partisan defensive planning it’s a battle which you could easily lose.

If anything, the Johnson Amendment needs to be more strictly enforced, not done away with.