Congress Shall Make No Law: The Church and the Johnson Amendment

Christ said at His ascension, “Go forth and make disciples of all nations.” This singular command permeates all aspects of Catholic life, both public and private. As Catholics, we are called to conform our entire life to the Gospel message. Conformity with the precepts of the Gospel message – which forms the essence of conversion – requires that we judge all things through the lens of the Gospel message and that our entire life be ordered toward the fulfillment of Christ’s precepts.

For as long as individual Catholics or the Church as a whole have struggled to put the teachings of Christ into practice in their lives, particularly in the social sphere, there has been a perpetual tug-of-war between the Church and the larger society. First, individual Catholics often struggle with the question of how to put their principles into practice within the context of the private and societal settings in which they find themselves. Further, on an institutional level, there has been frequent debate about the place of the Church and the exact parameters of its influence within society.

New dynamics of this debate, particularly the latter set of issues, have been created or brought closer to the surface since the start of the Enlightenment. During the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, many thinkers began to advocate the notion of religious liberty. On a more extreme level, some thinkers began to abhor the influence of religion within the public realm, seeing religion as the cause of superstition, bigotry, and division within society. In the late 1700’s, with the writing of the American Constitution, America became one of the earliest nations to legally adopt the concept of separation of Church and State – that is to say, the belief that there should be no state-sponsored religious organization. Many European nations, including and especially France during and immediately after the French Revolution, took this idea to an extreme, often severely limiting the Church’s influence in public affairs.

Church-State relations was one of the most hotly debated topics of Catholic social thought during this period, and many of the magisterial documents of the great popes of the 19th and early 20th centuries – including Pope Pius IX, Pope Leo XIII, and Pope St. Pius X – dealt directly with this issue.  Discussion of the practical implications of the separation of Church and State and the role of the Church within the larger society have been brought back into the spotlight lately, partly due to recent statements from United States President Donald Trump.

On Thursday, February 4, President Trump, speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast, spoke out against the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment was an addition to the United States tax code promulgated in 1954 and continued in most revisions of the U.S. tax code since then, the aim of which was to prohibit non-profit organizations, including religious institutions, from openly or publicly endorsing a particular political candidate for office. If they do, they can lose their tax-exempt status.

During his speech, President Trump said:

It was the great Thomas Jefferson who said, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty.” Jefferson asked, “Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?” Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs. That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.

This wouldn’t be the first time in which President Trump spoke out in harsh terms against the Johnson Amendment. This past autumn, toward the end of the campaign, President Trump, speaking at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., said:

Each of us here today has a role to play in bringing our country together, united in common purpose, and in common values. So let’s talk today about some of the things that we can do together to create the American future for everybody – not just a certain group of people, but for everybody. The first thing we have to do is give our churches their voice back. It has been taken away. The Johnson Amendment has blocked our pastors, and ministers, and others, from speaking their minds from their own pulpits.

He went on to say, “Your great people, the people who you rely on on Sunday and all throughout the week, they’ve been stopped from talking and from speaking by a law, and we’re going to get rid of that law, and we’re going to get rid of it so fast.”

Trump is not alone in his sentiment: on September 21, at around the same time that Trump spoke at the Values Voter Summit, Republican representatives Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Jody Hice of Georgia proposed a bill that would reverse the Johnson Amendment.

Before we can evaluate Trump’s words, and his potential actions, let us first look briefly at the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment is named after Lyndon Johnson, then a senator from Texas. Johnson first publicly proposed what would eventually become the Johnson Amendment in a July 1954 meeting of the United States Senate when he said tax-exempt status should be denied “to not only those people who influence legislation, but also those who intervene in any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for any public office.” Congress voted upon the Johnson Amendment on July 2, 1954, and it passed, with 64% of Republican senators and 66% of Democrat senators voting in favor of it. Only nine senators – eight Democrats and one independent – voted against it.

The Johnson Amendment can be seen in how non-profit, and thus tax-exempt, organizations are defined in section 501(c)(3) of the tax code of that year, which includes in its list of tax-exempt organizations:

… [c]orporations, and any community chest, fund, or foundation, organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals, no part of the net earnings of which inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual, no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation, and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distribution of written statements), any political campaign or on behalf of any candidate for public office.

It is important to look to the motivation behind the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment was influenced not by a desire to limit the influence of religion. In the mid-1950s, Lyndon Johnson was a Democrat senator from Texas running for re-election. A local conservative non-profit organization based in Texas endorsed a local rancher and oilman, Dudley Dougherty, and with this additional support, Dougherty defeated Johnson. Michael Hone, in an article written for the Case Western Law Review, wrote that the argument in favor of the Johnson amendment was that organizations with a tax-exempt status should not be allowed to make campaign contributions, yet he later goes on to say it was more likely that Johnson formulated the Johnson Amendment in order to exact revenge on his political enemies.

Supporters of the Johnson Amendment say this action is necessary to ensure the separation of Church and State. Further, they claim that the fears of religious people concerning the Johnson Amendment are unfounded, since the clergy can say whatever they want on matters of politics, but to actively support a particular candidate, particularly through financial support (by which you can qualify to gain a tax deduction), would be to get a government subsidy for supporting a particular viewpoint. Finally, supporters may point out that a member of the clergy is allowed to say whatever he wants on whatever hot-button issues are affecting the larger society, yet, all the law says is that they cannot directly come out and say the congregation must support Candidate A because that candidate accepts a particular view in line with the position of the Church. Opponents of the Johnson Amendment assert that it limits the ability of the clergy to preach the truth on certain issues that may profoundly affect the lives of their followers, thus infringing upon their First Amendment rights.

How are Catholics to respond to this? First, Catholicism is not a political system; there are no doctrinal or dogmatic statements that bind Catholics in conscience to adhere to one of the secular political ideologies that exist in the American legal system or in any other nation. Catholic theology is well defined, but certain elements of how to put it into practice are not as well defined. Thus, two faithful Catholics or two orthodox Catholic theologians may genuinely disagree as to which political candidate to support, and yet both may be within the realm of what is considered correct or true Church teaching. One deviates from the teaching of the Catholic Church in supporting a candidate whose platform is at odds with Catholic theology, particularly on social and moral issues, on a fundamental level, especially if one votes for such a candidate on the grounds of those parts of that candidate’s platform.

With this in mind, one must take into account the concern not so much about the influence of the Church in government affairs, but about the government within Church affairs. If the Johnson Amendment were to be repealed, what would prevent a churchman or lay employee from scandalizing the faithful by contributing to a candidate whose political policies deviate from Catholic teaching, especially if he were to so in the name of his parish, his diocese, or some Catholic organization?

Even a brief look at history shows the detrimental effects of politicking within the Church. By the late medieval and early modern periods, the papacy had become not only an influential spiritual position, but also a powerful political entity concerned primarily with earthly or political ends. Political division within the Church can have detrimental effects, as can be seen in the Great Western Schism and with the rending of Christendom during the Protestant Reformation. Considering that even members of the clergy, as private persons, are legally allowed to vote however they want, how is the Church to ensure that the clergy remain as a unified front when perpetuating Church teaching in the public sphere? How do we ensure that the clergy – at least on the episcopal level, the bishops representing the Church throughout the world – all get behind the candidate most in line with Church teaching? How are the official representatives of the Church to act when the differences between the two candidates with respect to Church teaching are minor or nuanced? Retaining unity in the teaching of the clergy is a particularly pertinent problem faced by many in the Church this day, with the current crisis plaguing the Catholic world.

Nonetheless, it is clear what the Catholic Church stands for. Both the laity and the clergy within the Catholic Church must be in the world but not of the world – that is, earthly political loyalties must take second place to loyalty to the truth – and any who adopt this mentality will be guided by the Holy Spirit to make prudential decisions that most closely align with Church teaching. The leaders of the Church have an obligation, in accordance with the Great Commission, to promote the Gospel message in all aspects of life, both public and private. Anything that serves as an obstacle to this is thus morally, spiritually, and theologically wrong.

As Pope Pius IX wrote in his 1864 Syllabus of Errors, the Church is a perfect society (societas perfecta), being perfect by virtue of being founded by Christ. From Christ, the Church derives certain rights and authorities. It is thus not up to the State to determine what the rights and authority of the Church are (cf. Syllabus of Errors, #19). From this, Pius also condemned the notion that the Church in any region has the right to practice its authority only with the permission of the local political leaders or the State (#20). Pope Pius further condemned the notion that Church leaders should be excluded from all affairs of the State (#27).

That which was condemned in the Syllabus of Errors is exactly what we see with the Johnson Amendment.

This is not merely a matter of free speech. Rather, it is a matter of salvation. Pope Leo XIII, in his 1885 encyclical Immortale Dei, noted how God allowed human leaders to come to power to serve as secondary causes of His justice – or, in other words, means by which God can make His justice manifest. Secular leaders must thus imitate God’s fatherly love of creation, by governing with kindness and a genuine desire for common good (cf. Immortale Dei, #4-5). This requires them to admit of the one true faith established by Christ (#6-7). Not only must the Church be recognized in order to bring about justice, but the larger society must allow the Church to be free to practice its authority “freely and without hindrance” (#11).

While the motivation behind the Johnson Amendment was not aimed specifically at religious organizations, there is a certain ambiguity to the Johnson Amendment that could have detrimental effects. As an article in the Houston Business and Tax Journal noted, because the Johnson Amendment was proposed on the floor without being discussed in committee, there was very little debate involved to clarify the exact meaning of the term “political activity.” The only clues included were the original statement – that is, that campaign contributions made to politicians by non-profit organizations are illegal, and a 1987 addition to the Johnson Amendment that also prohibited non-profit organizations from opposing or attacking any candidate. Yet, as the author of the article goes on to say, “the types of activities that constitute support or opposition remain ambiguous.”

We see that the Johnson Amendment is a vague law born out of malice, which serves as an obstacle to bringing the Gospel message into the public arena and which, due to its vagueness, can easily be used as a convenient tool by the enemies of the faith to limit the Church’s activity in the wider society. Vatican II’s Gaudiem et Spes prophetically speaks of the state of humanity in the absence of the Gospel message being properly proclaimed: man loses sight of his place within the cosmos as he forgets the Divine origin and end of life; people forget the basic precepts of justice, and thus the rich enlarge their wealth as the poor remain in their impoverished state, with one giving no concern for the needs of the other; and as humanity finds newfound freedom in some aspects of life, it becomes the slave to a materialistic mentality (cf. Gaudiem et Spes, #3-6). It is thus imperative that the Church not be pushed into a corner. The Church must not be expected to remain silent on the issues that plague society, and further, the larger society must not make silence preferable to the proclamation of the Gospel message by making the latter a cause of political and economic chastisement. Rather, the Church must be allowed to openly assert the Gospel message without hindrance to properly deal with the current fallen state of the human condition. Man must be reoriented toward God, and this can be done only by God’s activity being made manifest in and through His Church.

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