U.S. Reps. Jody Hice and Steve Scalise and U.S. Sen. James Lankford were fulfilling a promise embedded in the Republican platform when they recently introduced legislation to eliminate the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law which put limits on political speech by non-profit organizations, including religious groups.
Donald Trump doubled-down on that push by declaring that he would “get rid of and totally destroy” the law to “allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”
If there is a problem with religious speech, it isn’t that faith leaders are muzzled, but that their speech is too frequently subsidized by the taxpayer despite the Johnson Amendment. Rather than eliminating the Johnson Amendment, federal officials need to start enforcing it with more vigor.
The reality is that the United States is not suffering from a dearth of religious-based free speech, including the political kind from both sides.
The Rev. Franklin Graham freely said he believes God intervened in November “to stop the godless, atheistic progressive agenda from taking control of our country.”
Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council counseled a caller on his radio show to begin “praying about changing churches and finding another church” because the woman spoke about President Barack Obama in glowing terms. Perkins believes Obama is “not in alignment with biblical truth.”
A pastor at a Bronx church who supported Hillary Clinton’s run for the U.S. Senate substituted her opponent’s name for Satan during a hymn. Black pastors in the South have been known to promote Democratic candidates.
Every Sunday morning preachers climb into their pulpits and practice their faiths as they see fit. Often, that means speaking for or against contentious issues. They take to the radio and TV airwaves daily for the same reasons, expressing themselves eloquently enough to inspire the masses to undertake deep reflection or in ways that offend.
Sometimes they invite politicians to make appearances before their congregations. Sometimes they join politicians on the political stump. Since 2008, hundreds of pastors have explicitly spoken about politics from the pulpit during Pulpit Freedom Sundays.
All of this has taken place even with the Johnson Amendment, with the Internal Revenue Service fully aware, given that some pastors have defiantly sent the IRS recordings of their most political sermons.
There is, at times, understandable tension in drawing the line between church and state. Which should take precedent, a woman’s right to choose the contraception of her choice through the health insurance she’s paying for? Or an employer who has a faith-based objection to underwriting contraception in the health insurance program it is making available to her?
There are countless situations in which there may never be clear-cut solutions. That doesn’t include the Johnson Amendment. It is clear.
Faith leaders should speak as freely as they like in as many ways as they want – as long as they don’t ask taxpayers to foot the bill.