WASHINGTON – Facing a tough reelection to the Senate in 1954, Texan Lyndon Johnson slipped a rule into the tax code to deter two fierce anti-communist groups from take advantage of their nonprofit status to attack him.
Over the decades, the Christian right’s resentment of the Johnson Amendment has simmered, amid complaints that it gagged pastors and precluded churches and other tax exempt entities from endorsing candidates.
On Thursday morning, President Donald Trump will sign an order blocking enforcement – delivering on a key promise to religious conservatives who helped deliver him to the White House.
“I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment,” Trump promised Feb. 2 at the National Prayer Breakfast. It was a vow he’d repeated throughout the campaign to court evangelical Christians.
But few churches or other religious entities have endured audits or penalties under the rule. Even conservatives who support Trump and Thursday’s move say it’s mostly symbolic – both because complaints about its deterrent effect are overblown, and because an executive order isn’t a permanent fix.
“Mainly, the Johnson Amendment is bad because it scares pastors,” said Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of the Plano-based First Liberty Institute, which advocates for religious freedom. “Truthfully, it restricts nothing any pastor ever really does or wants to do.”
But said Shackelford, a Trump supporter, the rule has prompted pastors to censor themselves and kept them from speaking freely on political issues and elections. “That should never happen. Removing the Johnson Amendment takes away that false fear,” he said.
Trey Graham, senior pastor at First Melissa and one of the hundreds of religious leaders who met with Trump in New York last summer, predicted that pastors inclined toward political activism will feel emboldened.
“I don’t think I, as an American citizen and military veteran, should have fewer free speech rights just because I am a pastor,” he said, lauding Trump’s move. But he said, “I don’t think you will see a huge upswing in the political activity of most pastors because many of them have either decided that it would still risk financial penalties for their churches or have resigned themselves to the idea that the messiness of earthly politics is not worth the controversy it creates.”
That said, Graham called it “encouraging to see him keep a campaign promise made to Christian conservatives, as he has not done so yet on other issues important to us, like defunding Planned Parenthood, defending the biblical definition of marriage and moving the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.”
Last summer, the Fewer heard messages of support for a particular presidential candidate, though this was more common at predominantly African American congregations.
That didn’t stop Trump from effectively rallying evangelicals with a campaign promise to undo the rule.