House GOP Tucking Massive Gift To Religious Right Into Tax Bill

Donald Trump at 2015 Values Voter Summit, image from CNN coverage

The Washington Post reported on Friday that congressional Republicans are including repeal of the Johnson Amendment in their draft “tax reform” bill.

The Johnson Amendment is a decades-old legal restriction that prevents churches, like other tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, from explicitly endorsing or opposing candidates for political office. As part of his bid for Religious Right support in the presidential campaign, Trump had promised to make conservative Christians more politically powerful by eliminating it.

The idea that this restriction has stifled the voice of conservative Christians in the public arena is, of course, ridiculous. Right-wing evangelicals and their conservative Catholic allies have vast access to the airways and the public through media empires and political organizations, and they were among Trump’s biggest boosters.

Churches already have the right to talk about issues, register voters, and even distribute voter guides produced by right-wing groups. Repealing the Johnson Amendment could turn some churches into political machines that launder donations from politically-minded donors as tax-exempt religious contributions.

That’s a terrible idea. As the Post notes, more than 4,500 nonprofits recently urged congressional leaders not to weaken or repeal the amendment. Earlier this month, nearly 100 religious and denominational groups, including PFAW’s African American Ministers in Action, sent their own letter telling congressional leaders not to make houses of worship “another cog in a political machine or another loophole in campaign finance laws.” People For the American Way is among dozens of nonprofit groups who signed a March letter saying the restriction has “helped maintain the integrity and autonomy of our religious and charitable sectors and preserve the boundary separating church and state.”

But not surprisingly, the idea gets enthusiastic support from groups like the Family Research Council, Alliance Defending Freedom, Liberty Counsel, and other groups dedicated to shaping American law and policies to fit their interpretation of the Bible. Charisma’s Bob Eschliman said the Third Great Awakening that so many Religious Right leaders are trying to bring about cannot take place until preachers are “unshackled from the Johnson Amendment.”

There’s already legislative language to accomplish Trump’s pledge to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment. Last fall, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., introduced the “Free Speech Fairness Act.”